October 21, 2015

By Irene Burski

For Hurst v. Florida, the question facing the Supreme Court once again involves the death penalty, but not the constitutionality of capital punishment itself. Specifically, the question before the court asks who can decide whether the defendant’s mental state and capacity renders him or her eligible for the death penalty, and whether or not that violates the Eighth Amendment.

The defendant, Timothy Lee Hurst, was convicted of killing his co-worker Cynthia Harrison at the Popeye’s restaurant where the two worked during a robbery.  He was originally found guilty 11-1 by the first jury and eligible for the death penalty. In the course of the appeal however, Hurst’s lawyers argued that his mental state, having allegedly suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, reported U.S. World News, disqualified him from capital punishment.

The second jury disagreed with Hurst’s attorneys, finding that Hurst was eligible for the death penalty in a narrower 7-5 margin.

In a 2002 case, Ring v. Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled that the jury does have the right to decide, rather than the judge, whether or not the defendant meets the requirements of a death penalty punishment regarding whether or not the crime was “capital.”

Hurst’s case is quite similar, the nuance being whether or not a jury can determine whether a defendant is of diminished mental capacity in lieu of that being the judge’s decision.

Given the precedent in this area of the law, another ruling in favor of the power of the jury is likely. The court ruled 7-2 in their Ring decision, which favored jury power over the judge’s power.

“The right to trial by jury guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment would be senselessly diminished if it encompassed the factfinding necessary to increase a defendant’s sentence by two years, but not the factfinding necessary to put him to death,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in the decision.

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