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The Supreme Court's ruling against the Florida death penalty system, explained

The US Supreme Court.
The US Supreme Court.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In an 8-1 decision on Tuesday, the US Supreme Court issued a mostly procedural ruling against Florida's death penalty system, ultimately requiring that the state change how it issues death sentences.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, came down to procedure. Florida law requires that a jury merely recommend whether a death sentence should be applied in a capital case, with the judge making the final decision on the sentence. The US Supreme Court, in a decision that overturned the Florida Supreme Court, ruled that this scheme violates the Sixth Amendment because it takes away the defendant's right to have his sentence based on a jury's verdict.

"The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant's right to an impartial jury," Sotomayor wrote. "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."

It's unclear what effect, if any, this will ultimately have on Hurst's case in Florida. Hurst, who was convicted for a 1998 murder, brought the case all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Florida death sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment and procedure set through the 2002 Supreme Court case Ring v. Arizona. But juries twice recommended death sentences for Hurst, so it's possible they will repeat the same sentence now that his case is going back to Florida to implement the Supreme Court's decision.

Still, the Supreme Court ruling could also impact other cases in Florida, which has one of the largest death rows in the US. It's unlikely the Republican-dominated state will abolish capital punishment, but will have to at least change sentencing procedures.

Michael Doyle reported for McClatchy that only three of the 30 other death penalty states use a sentencing scheme similar to Florida's: Alabama, Delaware, and Montana.

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