ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The U.S. Supreme Court today struck down Florida's death sentencing system as unconstitutional. Florida ranks second in the nation in the number of death row inmates. There are currently 390 men and women awaiting execution in the state, and today's Supreme Court decision casts doubt on all those sentences. NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Florida law allows juries to recommend a sentence of death or life in prison in capital cases. But it's the judge who's charged with finding facts, and judges can and do frequently disregard the jury's recommendation. Indeed, they've disregarded the jury's advisory on some 200 occasions either way since Florida's capital sentencing law was enacted in 1972. Today, the Supreme Court, by an 8 to 1 vote, said that system is unconstitutional.
Writing for the Court majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial requires a jury and not a judge to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. a jury's mere recommendation is not enough, she said. Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter.
The decision came in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted in the brutal stabbing murder of a coworker. A jury recommended a death sentence by a 7 to 5 vote, but without any finding of facts that justified the sentence, and the judge reiterated the penalty. Since 2000, the court has issues a series of decisions requiring juries, not judges, to make critical fact-finding judgments. And in 2002, it struck down an Arizona death penalty statute similar to Florida's.
The court would later say that its decision was not retroactive, that it did not apply to those Arizona sentences that had already worked their way through the appeals process in 2002. But retroactivity is a question that depends, in part, at least, on state law, and the Florida Supreme Court has given greater leeway for retroactivity claims than most other states. Michael Radelet, an expert on the death penalty in Florida, says the bottom line after today's ruling is uncertainty.
MICHAEL RADELET: The Florida Supreme Court has a dozen different directions they can go in. And the only certain thing is that this is going to be litigated for a long time.
TOTENBERG: Radelet, now a professor at the University Colorado, Boulder, says he expects the Florida Supreme Court will at least temporarily block all future executions.
RADELET: The next execution is scheduled for February 11, so we'll find out what happens pretty quickly.
TOTENBERG: Today's Supreme Court decision leaves Alabama the last state where a judge can override a jury to impose a death sentence. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.