Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Vicious killer wins appeal in Supreme Court

I read years ago that when the Supreme Court battled over the death penalty in the 1970s and 1980s, the liberal justices would focus on legal precedent in arguing that the death penalty in some case was unconstitutional. But that Chief Justice Rehnquist would focus on the grisly, nauseating facts of the killing, down to the last drop of blood, before holding that the death penalty was legal in that case. This case is similar, except this time around, even the conservative justices (except for one) focused on the law.

The case is Hurst v. Florida, decided by the Supreme Court on January 12. The majority decision, written by Justice Sotomayor, says little about the stabbing. The real focus is on how criminal justice works in the State of Florida. If the jury finds the defendant guilty of murder, it then hears evidence about the punishment. But the jury cannot mandate the death penalty; it can only make that recommendation to the judge, who then hears evidence to determine whether there was enough aggravating evidence to support the ultimate punishment. So the judge really imposes the death penalty. By an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court says this scheme violates the right to trial by jury under the Constitution.

The super-majority thinks this is an easy case. In 1984 and again in 1989, a very different Supreme Court said capital punishment procedures like the one in Florida was constitutional. But in 2000, the Court said in the Apprendi case that any fact that "exposes the defendant to a greater punishment than that authorized by the jury's guilty verdict" is an "element:" that must be submitted to the jury. Then, in 2002, the Court said in the Ring case that the jury must decide any fact that can increase the criminal defendant's punishment. Since the death penalty is more severe than life in prison, the jury has to impose that punishment, not the judge, even if the jury recommends to the judge that the defendant deserves the Chair. Apprendi means the 1984 and 1989 precedents are no longer good law.

Justice Alito dissents. He argues that the Florida death penalty law does not run afoul of Apprendi. He also gives a detailed account of how the victim was stabbed to death. It is not a pleasant read, I can tell you that. He argues from those details that even if the Florida scheme violates the Constitution, it was harmless error for the judge to impose the death penalty. Alito concludes:

In light of this evidence, it defies belief to suggest that the jury would not have found the existence of either aggravating factor if its finding was binding. More than 17 years have passed since Cynthia Harrison was brutally murdered. In the interest of bringing this protracted litigation to a close, I would rule on the issue of harmless error and would affirm the decision of the Florida Supreme Court.

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