This week, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear a case brought by Florida Death Row inmate Timothy L. Hurst that brings another challenge to the constitutionality of the Florida statute allowing for capital punishment and how a jury works in assessing the death penalty.

Read the Supreme Court Order here.  The sole question to be addressed by SCOTUS is this:  

 Whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment or the  Eighth Amendment in light of this Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U. S. 584 (2002). 

In Hurst’s petition to the High Court, his attorneys are arguing that the Florida death penalty statute is unconstitutional because of the way that it allows a jury to decide if a defendant facing capital punishment is intellectually challenged.  

Hurst’s lawyers are arguing that he should not be given the penalty of death because it goes against federal constitutional protections of cruel and unusual punishment when the defendant is intellectually disabled.

Interesting how the Supreme Court has combined the two questions presented to it in Hurst’s petition into the single issue above.  

In the Death Row inmate’s petition, he asked the High Court to rule on two questions:  

  • first, the role of the Florida jury in cases where a death penalty defendant argues intellectual disability and
  • second, the role of the Florida jury in the overall death sentencing phase — including the lack of unanimous juries being required under Florida law.  

There is no real argument that Timothy Hurst is mentally challenged.  In the Hurst case, one test shows that Hurst has an IQ of 69.  This and other evidence was provided to the jury during the punishment phase of his criminal trial. His intellectual disability was presented as a mitigating factor. 

(For more on mitigating factors, check out our earlier blog posts discussing mitigation and Terry Lenamon’s focus on mitigation and the sentencing phase of death penalty cases.)

Florida Supreme Court Decision Under Review of SCOTUS 

The Florida Supreme Court has heard Hurst’s arguments and ruled against him.  The state’s highest court has determined that the criminal trial jury did not have do make a decision (a "factual determination" as the factfinder) on Hurst’s intellectual disability.  

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court will review that opinion and its rationales against the federal constitutional protections and determine if Florida’s current procedure regarding juries and their responsiblities in this aspect of mitigation is unconstitutional.