Florida was in the spotlight again for its death penalty procedure this week when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about the way the Sunshine State hands down death sentences.
In Florida, Alabama and Delaware, juries can recommend the death penalty if more than half the jurors agree; In other states, either the jury decision has to be unanimous or a jury isn't used at all in sentencing.
The Sunshine State, though, is unique in that jurors do not have to agree on the reason why they’re recommending the death penalty. Each juror can vote in favor of capitol punishment for a different reason.
The Supreme Court case, Hurst v. Florida, revolves around Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of the 1998 murder of a co-worker in Escambia County. He was sentenced to death in 2000 after a jury recommended the death penalty in a 7-5 vote.
In their argument, his lawyers maintain that the way the death penalty is handed down in Florida violates the Sixth Amendment, which governs trials in the U.S.
Scott Sundby teaches at the University of Miami School of Law and says unanimity is a pillar of the American trial system.
“If you’ve seen movies like '12 Angry Men,’ there’s this notion that if we require all 12 to agree, that all doubts about the defendants’ guilt or his culpability will be aired and discussed fully,” said Sundby, “and that it’s such a serious proposition to take someone’s life in the name of the state, that we would only want to do so if we were absolutely confident.”
The Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision in the spring.