We have BIG NEWS this week from the Supreme Court in the case of Hurst v. Florida.

By a 7-1-1 vote—in fact, even overruling two of its own prior rulings—the Supreme Court of the United States has upheld the jury as the sole fact-finding authority in capital sentencing.

Specifically, the Court found that the Florida capital sentencing scheme, in which the judge is the one whose job is “to make the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty”, violates the Sixth Amendment, in light of its own ruling in Ring v. Arizona (2002) requiring that the jury find the aggravating factors if the death penalty is to be imposed.

Ring, in turn, traces back to the case of Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000). In Apprendi, the Court ruled that the penalty for a crime could not be extended beyond the statutory maximum due to the findings of a judge based on a preponderance of evidence, but instead such extension could only be based on the findings of a jury meeting the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Ring was the application of the Apprendi ruling to capital cases.

Florida seems to have tried to carve out an exception for itself to Ring by arguing that the jury plays an advisory role in sentencing. However, the Court noted in its majority opinion that,

In arguing that the jury’s recommendation necessarily included an aggravating circumstance finding, Florida fails to appreciate the judge’s central and singular role under Florida law, which makes the court’s findings necessary to impose death and makes the jury’s function advisory only. The State cannot now treat the jury’s advisory recommendation as the necessary factual finding required by Ring.

In addition to Florida, two other states have a judicial override provision in place that allows a judge to unilaterally impose the death penalty against the jury’s recommendation of a life without parole sentence: Delaware and Alabama. According to the Equal Justice Initiative,

Of the 33 states with the death penalty, Alabama is the only jurisdiction where judges routinely override jury verdicts of life to impose capital punishment. Since 1976, Alabama judges have overridden jury verdicts 111 times. Although judges have authority to override life or death verdicts, in 91 percent of overrides elected judges have overruled jury verdicts of life to impose the death penalty.

We are currently consulting with legal experts to better understand what, if any, implications Hurst holds for judicial override in Delaware and Alabama, in addition to Florida.

It is absolutely unconscionable that in the most serious of all legal cases-those in which the state claims the right to purposely put people to death-government can not only usurp the jury’s traditional, legal function in judging the law, but also jurors’ well-established and uncontroversial role as the fact-finders in the case. If the jury are neither to judge the law nor the facts, then the next step is the elimination of the jury altogether.

Many jury issues with respect to capital cases still need to be addressed including non-unanimous votes in capital sentencing, the unjust effects of death qualification of jurors during voir dire, and so on. But the Hurst ruling upholding the jury as the final arbiter of facts in capital sentencing is greatly encouraging that the endangered species that is the jury can be brought back from the brink of extinction.

Photo credit: By UpstateNYer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, resized with no other changes