Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Florida's Brief in Hurst v. Florida

Last week I discussed Timothy Hurst's brief in a death penalty case pending before the Supreme Court, Hurst v. Florida. This week, I'm looking at Florida's brief, in which it argues that its laws relating to death sentences are constitutional. 

Outlining Favorable Facts

Like Hurst, Florida uses its brief to point out helpful facts, some of which aren't important to the issues before the Court. For example, Florida provides great detail about the heinousness of Hurst's crime, detailing the "sixty slash and stab wounds," some of which were so deep they "cut through the tissue into the underlying bone."

Additionally, Florida notes several times in the brief that not just one jury or one judge, but two juries and two judges sentenced Hurst to death, leaving the impression that this is not a close case but one in which the death penalty was warranted.

Flipping Hurst's Argument on its Head

Unlike Hurst, who suggests that the Florida sentencing scheme in death penalty cases provides fewer protections than those of other states, Florida argues that its sentencing laws actually provide more not fewer protections than those of other states. Florida outlines its five-step process in death penalty cases, noting that a jury may only recommend death if it finds "at least one aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt" and that even after a jury recommendation of death, the trial judge conducts an "independent" hearing, and all death sentences are automatically reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court.

As you may recall, Hurst spends a substantial portion of his brief arguing that Florida could not even prove a majority of jurors agreed on the same aggravating circumstance in recommending a death sentence. In Florida's brief, however, we learn two important facts that Hurst does not mention: (1) Hurst never contested one of the aggravating factors--that the murder occurred during a robbery--during the trial in chief, and (2) at the sentencing hearing, Hurst acknowledged that the State had proven both aggravators but argued that the mitigating factors outweighed the aggravating factors.

Ouch. That really hurts Hurst's argument.

Finally, in his brief, Hurst argues that his case is controlled by the Supreme Court's 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona and that, under Ring, Hurst was entitled to have a jury, not a judge, decide his sentence. As Florida points out, however, Florida has long used the same death sentencing scheme, the Court has reviewed the scheme at least four times before, and, each time, the Court has upheld the constitutionality of Florida's death sentencing laws. Ring did not overrule those prior cases, Florida argues, and Ring's requirements relate to death penalty eligibility (which is not at issue in Hurst) and not to death penalty sentencing (as Hurst claims).    

Downplaying the "What Ifs" 

In it's brief, Florida does a good job of allaying concerns Hurst raises in his brief. For example, Hurst raises the possibility that a single judge could override a life sentence recommendation from a 12-person jury. Florida notes that its precedent allows such an override in only the "most extraordinary circumstances," and no judge has overridden a life recommendation since 1999.

Hurst also argues that during the sentencing hearing before only the trial judge (known as a Spencer hearing), the court could consider evidence never presented to or heard by the jury. That seems disconcerting to the average reader, but we learn that in Hurst's case, neither Hurst nor the State submitted additional evidence. With just a few keystrokes, Florida dismisses one of Hurst's key concerns. 

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