HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a jury must have the final say in issuing a death sentence, not the judge.
The ruling in a Florida case, Hurst v. Florida, could have a significant effect in Alabama where judges are given the last word on death sentences.
Alabama death penalty cases feature a two-part process, the guilt phase and, if the defendant is convicted, a penalty phase.
In the penalty phase the same jury that heard the trial evidence considers arguments for and against the death penalty by the two sides. The jury then issues a recommendation for the judge on what they think is the appropriate sentence.
In Alabama, as in the Florida case where the high court ruled Tuesday, the judge has the last word. The judge does not have to accept the jury’s recommendation either or death, or a life sentence.
In today’s 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court found that: “The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury. This right required Florida to base Timothy Hurst’s death sentence on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s factfinding. Florida’s sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is therefore unconstitutional.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the opinion, with Justice Samuel Alito the lone dissenter.
It is not yet clear how the ruling will affect Alabama law. Madison County has four death penalty cases slated to be tried in 2016, with John Clayton Owens set to go on trial next month.
The Alabama Attorney General’s office said this afternoon that the ruling won’t affect Alabama.
“In the Florida case, the holding is that a jury must find the aggravating factor in order to make someone eligible for the death penalty,” the attorney general’s office said in a news release. “Alabama’s system already requires the jury to do just that. The jury must unanimously find an aggravating factor at either the guilt or sentencing phase—such as when the murder was committed during a robbery, a rape, or a kidnapping.
“Alabama’s death penalty system was challenged last year in the U.S. Supreme Court on the same grounds that Florida’s was challenged. The Supreme Court declined to take that case, or even to hold the case until after it resolved the Florida case.”