Supreme Court Will Hear Case Challenging the Death Penalty

The Court agreed to hear a lawsuit that says Florida is unconstitutionally sentencing mentally ill defendants to death.

National Journal
March 9, 2015, 8:57 a.m.

Timothy Lee Hurst has been on Flor­ida’s death row for more than a dec­ade, but he says his sen­tence was un­con­sti­tu­tion­al—and now the Su­preme Court has agreed to hear him out.

Hurst was con­victed of first-de­gree murder in the grisly death of a wo­man he worked with at a Popeye’s res­taur­ant. She was found in the store’s freez­er, bound, gagged, and stabbed at least 60 times with a box cut­ter. The store’s safe had been emp­tied.

Ac­cord­ing to court re­cords, two of Hurst’s friends test­i­fied that he had ad­mit­ted to the crime. One of them helped him hide his bloody clothes, the stolen money, and the vic­tim’s driver’s li­cense. A jury de­lib­er­ated for roughly six hours be­fore con­vict­ing Hurst of first-de­gree murder and re­com­mend­ing the death pen­alty.

At a second sen­ten­cing hear­ing, though, his law­yers ar­gued that he is men­tally dis­abled—which would mean he could not be sen­tenced to death.

His moth­er drank heav­ily dur­ing her preg­nancy, ac­cord­ing to court re­cords, and a doc­tor test­i­fied that there was wide­spread dam­age to Hurst’s brain. Fam­ily mem­bers said he was slow to de­vel­op and had trouble speak­ing, tak­ing care of him­self, and com­plet­ing simple tasks.

That second sen­ten­cing hear­ing still pro­duced a death sen­tence. But Hurst’s law­yers have ap­pealed all the way to the Su­preme Court, ar­guing that the way Flor­ida ad­min­is­ters death sen­tences is un­con­sti­tu­tion­al.

The high court said Monday that it will hear Hurst’s case. The justices will con­sider wheth­er Flor­ida’s sen­ten­cing rules vi­ol­ate the Sixth Amend­ment, which guar­an­tees the right to a tri­al by jury, or the Eighth Amend­ment, which pro­hib­its “cruel and un­usu­al pun­ish­ment.”

The prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to Hurst’s law­yers, is that Flor­ida doesn’t re­quire jur­ies to make a spe­cif­ic de­term­in­a­tion about wheth­er a de­fend­ant is men­tally dis­abled. While the jury heard evid­ence about Hurst’s men­tal ca­pa­city, his ap­peal states, “it was “¦ nev­er in­struc­ted that if it found him to suf­fer from that in­tel­lec­tu­al dis­ab­il­ity, it had to re­com­mend a sen­tence of life.”

“Wheth­er a de­fend­ant is men­tally re­tarded or not is a fac­tu­al is­sue and hence “¦ must be re­solved by the jury,” his ap­peal to the Su­preme Court says.

Hurst is in­vok­ing a 2002 case, Ring v. Ari­zona, in which the Su­preme Court ruled that jur­ies have to be in­volved in hand­ing down the death pen­alty. Any facts that are ne­ces­sary to trig­ger the death pen­alty must be presen­ted to a jury and proven bey­ond a reas­on­able doubt, the Court said.

“I be­lieve that the fun­da­ment­al mean­ing of the jury-tri­al guar­an­tee of the Sixth Amend­ment is that all facts es­sen­tial to im­pos­i­tion of the level of pun­ish­ment that the de­fend­ant re­ceives—wheth­er the stat­ute calls them ele­ments of the of­fense, sen­ten­cing factors, or Mary Jane—must be found by the jury bey­ond a reas­on­able doubt,” Justice Ant­on­in Scalia wrote in a con­cur­ring opin­ion in Ring.

Hurst says Flor­ida is vi­ol­at­ing that hold­ing by not re­quir­ing jur­ies to de­term­ine wheth­er de­fend­ants are “men­tally re­tarded and hence in­eligible for ex­e­cu­tion.”

The Flor­ida Su­preme Court ruled that the Ring pre­ced­ent doesn’t con­flict with the way Flor­ida ad­min­is­ters the death pen­alty.

Ring says jur­ies must con­sider any facts that would trig­ger a heav­ier pen­alty; that doesn’t mean jur­ies also have to spe­cific­ally con­sider evid­ence that would lead to a weak­er sen­tence, Flor­ida ar­gued in a brief to the high court.

“We have re­peatedly held that a de­fend­ant has no right … to a jury de­term­in­a­tion of wheth­er he is men­tally re­tarded,” the Flor­ida Su­preme Court ruled in Hurst’s case. “Some states have es­tab­lished pro­ced­ures un­der which a jury does de­term­ine if a cap­it­al de­fend­ant is men­tally re­tarded. Flor­ida is not one of those states, and the United States Su­preme Court has not man­dated any spe­cif­ic pro­ced­ure for mak­ing the de­term­in­a­tion of men­tal re­tard­a­tion in the cap­it­al sen­ten­cing con­text.”

Ar­gu­ments in the case have not yet been sched­uled.

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