In the states that continue to put their own citizens to death, virtually every part of the process is warped by injustice and absurdity. In Florida and Alabama, death row inmates are challenging perverse state laws on the jury’s role in capital trials. The Supreme Court, which has been intervening more often in death penalty cases, last week agreed to review the Florida law.
In death penalty trials, juries that reach a guilty verdict are usually required in the trial’s subsequent penalty phase to make factual findings, such as whether the crime was especially heinous, that will determine whether the defendant is sentenced to death.
But Florida lets the judge make these findings, and does not require that the jury be unanimous in voting for a death sentence. After Timothy Lee Hurst was found guilty of a 1998 murder of a co-worker in Pensacola, his jury split 7 to 5 in favor of executing him, with no record of whether the majority even agreed on the reason. (Mr. Hurst claims he is intellectually disabled and thus ineligible to be executed.) In other words, Mr. Hurst was effectively condemned by a single vote by an unidentified juror.
Alabama also allows death to be decided by a single vote: that of the judge, who may override a jury verdict of life in prison and replace it with a death sentence, relegating the jury’s status to that of an advisory body. The Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the Alabama law in 2013, prompting a sharp dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She concluded that the state’s judges, who are elected — and who have unilaterally imposed death sentences 101 times after the jury voted for life — “appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures.”