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In Florida, as in many other states, the death penalty is a legal sanction that can be applied in cases of capital murder. But who gets to make the decision – the jury, or the judge? That is the crux of a Florida death penalty case that the US Supreme Court will be considering during his current term.

The case – Hurst v. Florida – arose from the defendant being found guilty of murder in 2000, whereupon he was sentenced to death. That initial sentence went before the Florida Supreme Court, which sent it back to the trial court for further consideration of whether the defendant's alleged intellectual disability meant that he was disqualified for the death penalty. Upon rehearing, the trial court once again sentenced the defendant to death, and this time the Florida Supreme Court upheld the decision.

Upon agreeing to hear the case, the US Supreme Court stated that it's sole question for consideration is whether Florida's death sentencing scheme violates the sixth or eighth amendments to the U.S. Constitution in light of an earlier US Supreme Court decision from 2002 (Ring v. Arizona). That case held that finding whether a defendant meets the qualification for the death penalty is a function of the jury and not a judge. In the Florida case, although the jury recommended the death penalty, but failed to make clear what factors supported that decision, meaning that the judge in the case decided that qualification instead.

It was perhaps the perceived reluctance of the Florida Supreme Court to apply the standard set forth in Ring that led the US Supreme Court to accept the appeal. Depending upon how the Supreme Court rules in this case, criminal defense law firms will be paying attention because it may have a bearing on other death penalty cases in Florida as well.

Source: Newsweek, "Five Important Cases to Watch in the New Supreme Court Term," Elizabeth Slattery, Sept. 26, 2015 

Secondary source: U.S. News & World Report, "Supreme Court to Take on Florida's Death Penalty System," Tierney Sneed, March 9, 2015

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