Florida's unique system for sentencing people to death is unconstitutional because it gives too much power to judges — and not enough to juries — to decide capital sentences, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The 8-1 ruling said that the state's sentencing procedure is flawed because juries play only an advisory role in recommending death while the judge can reach a different decision.
The decision could trigger new sentencing appeals from some of the 390 inmates on the Florida's death row, a number second only to California. But legal experts said it may apply only to those whose initial appeals are not yet exhausted.
The court sided with Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of the 1998 murder of his manager at a Popeye's restaurant in Pensacola. A jury divided 7-5 in favor of death, but a judge imposed the sentence.
Florida's solicitor general argued that the system was acceptable because a jury first decides if the defendant is eligible for the death penalty.
Writing for the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said a jury's "mere recommendation is not enough." She said the court was overruling previous decisions upholding the state's sentencing process.
"The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death," Sotomayor said.
The justices sent the case back to the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether the error in sentencing Hurst was harmless, or whether he should get a new sentencing hearing.
Justice Samuel Alito dissented, saying that the trial judge in Florida simply performs a reviewing function that duplicates what the jury has done.
Under Florida law, the state requires juries in capital sentencing hearings to weigh factors for and against imposing a death sentence. But the judge is not bound by those findings and can reach a different conclusion. The judge can also weigh other factors independently. So a jury could base its decision on one particular aggravating factor, but a judge could then rely on a different factor the jury never considered.
In Hurst's case, prosecutors asked the jury to consider two aggravating factors: the murder was committed during a robbery and it was "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel." But Florida law did not require the jury to say how it voted on each factor. Hurst's attorney argued that it was possible only four jurors agreed with one, while three agreed with the other.
Sotomayor said Florida's system is flawed because it allows a sentencing judge to find aggravating factors "independent of a jury's fact-finding."
The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that a defendant has the right to have a jury decide whether the circumstances of a crime warrant a sentence of death.
Florida is one of only three states that do not require a unanimous jury verdict when sentencing someone to death. The others are Alabama and Delaware.
Stephen Crawford, a former federal prosecutor turned defense attorney, said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling is necessary.
"We want a jury of 12 people to make this decision, not an elected or appointed judge," he said. "That's what this case is really all about."
Stephen Harper, a law professor who runs the Death Penalty Clinic at Florida International University, said it's unlikely the Supreme Court ruling will open the door for most Florida death-row inmates to new sentencing hearings. He said the Florida decision is based on a previous Arizona ruling that was already found not to be retroactive.
"In general, it will not be retroactively applied," Harper said.
However, one former judge and now law professor in based in Tampa feels differently.
"There are going to be a number of people whose sentences will have to be reheard and there will be a rehearing, or the sentences will have to be commuted."
But he added that Florida inmates whose initial appeals have not been exhausted may be able to argue that the latest decision applies to them. And, he said, any capital cases that are awaiting trial would likely be delayed while state legislators and the Florida Supreme Court sort out the next steps.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said her office is reviewing the ruling.
News of the high court's decision stunned Florida legislators. Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, who learned of the ruling while he was giving a speech to open the state's annual legislative session, said the Supreme Court had "impeccable timing."
Crisafulli said House legal experts would begin to review the ruling. Rep. Matt Gaetz, an attorney who has dealt with capital punishment during his legislative career, predicted that Florida legislators would act swiftly to get the death penalty "right back on track."
Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project, said the ruling "restored the central role of the jury in imposing the death penalty." She called it another step toward ending capital punishment since juries across the country have been increasingly reluctant to impose death sentences.
Associated Press writers Curt Anderson in Miami, Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Florida, and Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Florida, contributed to this report.