U.S. Supreme Court declares Florida's death penalty law unconstitutional for allowing judge, not jury, to make decision

The Supreme Court in Washington D.C., U.S.A.Reuters

Florida's death penalty law has been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court after it found that it requires a judge and not a jury to make findings that are needed to impose the capital punishment.

"We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional. The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury's mere recommendation is not enough," said the Supreme Court, according to its decision written by Justice Sonia Sontamayor.

The Sixth Amendment says that "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury. . . ."

"This right, in conjunction with the Due Process Clause, requires that each element of a crime be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt," the U.S. Supreme Court ruled.

The ruling was based on the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted by a split jury who voted 7-5 for him to be meted the death penalty. At resentencing, the jury again failed to issue a unanimous verdict. Despite this, the judge sentenced him to death.

Hurst was convicted of the stabbing murder of his co-worker in 1998, according to NBC News. With the ruling, his case goes back to the lower courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court, voting 8-1, decided that "we hold that Hurst's sentence violates the Sixth Amendment."

There are 400 inmates on Florida's death row and it's not clear how the ruling could affect them.

"The substance of the ruling would affect the vast majority of Florida's death row inmates," according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. "The remaining question would be: Will the Supreme Court consider this to have retroactive effect and retroactive to when?"

He added, "Every defendant in Florida whose death sentence was imposed in this matter will be challenging the constitutionality of his or her death sentence under Hurst," Dunham said.

Connie Fuselier, the mother of Hurst's victim, said she can't bear the thought of more court hearings.

"It's been hell. When you get to thinking it's over with, it starts all over again. It's nerve-racking," she said.

At one point during the many appeals in the case, Fuselier said she told a prosecutor that a sentence of life without parole was fine.

"I just want it over with. I want to know he has no more appeals," she said.