Florida’s death penalty scheme may be summarized quite simply: Judges can kill you. Under Florida law, the jury in a capital case may recommend a sentence to the judge. But the judge has no legal obligation to follow it: The jury’s decision is only “advisory.”
by Mark Joseph Stern
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court invalidated Florida’s bizarre, perverse death penalty system by a lopsided vote of 8–1. That is, undoubtedly, excellent news for capital punishment abolitionists. But the majority’s decision, penned by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, actually has nothing to do with the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishments.” Rather, Sotomayor’s opinion revolves around the critical constitutional role that juries must play in any death penalty trial.
Florida’s death penalty scheme may be summarized quite simply: Judges can kill you. Under Florida law, the jury in a capital case may recommend a sentence to the judge. But the judge has no legal obligation to follow it: The jury’s decision is only “advisory.” That means the judge can ignore a jury’s recommendation of life in prison and sentence a defendant to death instead. Moreover, if the jury can’t reach a decision one way or the other, the judge is empowered to impose death. To do so, he need only find that “aggravating circumstances” existed that make the defendant eligible for death. (An aggravating circumstance is any factor, such as extreme depravity, that increases the defendant’s culpability.) The judge is legally empowered to make these factual findings on his own, with or without input from the jury.
This strange system’s constitutional defect is very straightforward. The Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a jury trial requires that any fact that “expose[s] the defendant to a greater punishment than that authorized by the jury’s guilty verdict” must be submitted to a jury. This principle extends to death penalty cases: In 2002, the court held that any finding of an aggravating circumstance that exposes a defendant to death must emerge from the jury, not the judge. That case clearly dictates the outcome of this one. Florida law empowers judges to expose defendants to greater punishments than are authorized by juries. Thus, as the court held on Tuesday, Florida law violates the Sixth Amendment.