Hurst v. Florida, No. 14-7505, ___ U.S. ___ (Jan. 12, 2016).

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court.

A Florida jury convicted Timothy Lee Hurst of murdering his co-worker, Cynthia Harrison. A penalty-phase jury recommended that Hurst’s judge impose a death sentence. Notwithstanding this recommendation, Florida law required the judge to hold a separate hearing and determine whether sufficient aggravating circumstances existed to justify imposing the death penalty. The judge so found and sentenced Hurst to death.

We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional. The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.

I

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… Under [Florida] law, … “A person who has been convicted of a capital felony shall be punished by death” only if an additional sentencing proceeding “results in findings by the court that such person shall be punished by death.” [Citations to Florida statutes omitted throughout.] “[O]therwise such person shall be punished by life imprisonment and shall be ineligible for parole.”

The additional sentencing proceeding Florida employs is a “hybrid” proceeding “in which [a] jury renders an advisory verdict but the judge makes the ultimate sentencing determinations.” Ring v. Arizona, 536 U. S. 584, 608, n. 6 (2002). First, the sentencing judge conducts an evidentiary hearing before a jury. Next, the jury renders an “advisory sentence” of life or death without specifying the factual basis of its recommendation. “Notwithstanding the recommendation of a majority of the jury, the court, after weighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, shall enter a sentence of life imprisonment or death.” If the court imposes death, it must “set forth in writing its findings upon which the sentence of death is based.” Although the judge must give the jury recommendation “great weight,” Tedder v. State, 322 So. 2d 908, 910 (Fla. 1975) (per curiam), the sentencing order must “reflect the trial judge’s independent judgment about the existence of aggravating and mitigating factors,” Blackwelder v. State, 851 So. 2d 650, 653 (Fla. 2003) (per curiam).

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At resentencing in 2012, the sentencing judge conducted a new hearing during which Hurst offered mitigating evidence that he was not a “major participant” in the murder because he was at home when it happened. [Record citations omitted throughout.] The sentencing judge instructed the advisory jury that it could recommend a death sentence if it found at least one aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt: that the murder was especially “heinous, atrocious, or cruel” or that it occurred while Hurst was committing a robbery. The jury recommended death by a vote of 7 to 5.

The sentencing judge then sentenced Hurst to death. In her written order, the judge based the sentence in part on her independent determination that both the heinous-murder and robbery aggravators existed. She assigned “great weight” to her findings as well as to the jury’s recommendation of death.

The Florida Supreme Court affirmed 4 to 3. 147 So. 3d 435 (2014). As relevant here, the court rejected Hurst’s argument that his sentence violated the Sixth Amendment in light of Ring, 536 U. S. 584. Ring, the court recognized, “held that capital defendants are entitled to a jury determination of any fact on which the legislature conditions an increase in the maximum punishment.” 147 So. 3d, at 445. But the court considered Ring inapplicable in light of this Court’s repeated support of Florida’s capital sentencing scheme in pre-Ring cases. 147 So. 3d, at 446–447 (citing Hildwin v. Florida, 490 U. S. 638 (1989) (per curiam)); see also Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U. S. 447, 457–465 (1984). Specifically, in Hildwin, this Court held that the Sixth Amendment “does not require that the specific findings authorizing the imposition of the sentence of death be made by the jury.” 490 U. S., at 640–641. The Florida court noted that we have “never expressly overruled Hildwin, and did not do so in Ring.” 147 So. 3d, at 446–447.

Justice Pariente, joined by two colleagues, dissented from this portion of the court’s opinion. She reiterated her view that “Ring requires any fact that qualifies a capital defendant for a sentence of death to be found by a jury.” Id., at 450 (opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part).

We granted certiorari to resolve whether Florida’s capital sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment in light of Ring. 575 U. S. ___ (2015). We hold that it does, and reverse.

II

… In Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U. S. 466, 494 (2000), this Court held that any fact that “expose[s] the defendant to a greater punishment than that authorized by the jury’s guilty verdict” is an “element” that must be submitted to a jury. In the years since Apprendi, we have applied its rule to instances involving plea bargains, Blakely v. Washington, 542 U. S. 296 (2004), sentencing guidelines, United States v. Booker, 543 U. S. 220 (2005), criminal fines, Southern Union Co. v. United States, 567 U. S. ___ (2012), mandatory minimums, Alleyne, 570 U. S., at ___, and, in Ring, 536 U. S. 584, capital punishment.

In Ring, we concluded that Arizona’s capital sentencing scheme violated Apprendi’s rule because the State allowed a judge to find the facts necessary to sentence a defendant to death. * * * Had Ring’s judge not engaged in any factfinding, Ring would have received a life sentence. Ring, 536 U. S., at 597. Ring’s death sentence therefore violated his right to have a jury find the facts behind his punishment.

The analysis the Ring Court applied to Arizona’s sentencing scheme applies equally to Florida’s. Like Arizona at the time of Ring, Florida does not require the jury to make the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty. Rather, Florida requires a judge to find these facts. Although Florida incorporates an advisory jury verdict that Arizona lacked, we have previously made clear that this distinction is immaterial: “It is true that in Florida the jury recommends a sentence, but it does not make specific factual findings with regard to the existence of mitigating or aggravating circumstances and its recommendation is not binding on the trial judge. A Florida trial court no more has the assistance of a jury’s findings of fact with respect to sentencing issues than does a trial judge in Arizona.” Walton v. Arizona, 497 U. S. 639, 648 (1990); accord, State v. Steele, 921 So. 2d 538, 546 (Fla. 2005) (“[T]he trial court alone must make detailed findings about the existence and weight of aggravating circumstances; it has no jury findings on which to rely”).

As with Timothy Ring, the maximum punishment Timothy Hurst could have received without any judge-made findings was life in prison without parole. As with Ring, a judge increased Hurst’s authorized punishment based on her own factfinding. In light of Ring, we hold that Hurst’s sentence violates the Sixth Amendment.

III

Without contesting Ring’s holding, Florida offers a bevy of arguments for why Hurst’s sentence is constitutional. None holds water.

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The State fails to appreciate the central and singular role the judge plays under Florida law. As described above and by the Florida Supreme Court, the Florida sentencing statute does not make a defendant eligible for death until “findings by the court that such person shall be punished by death.” (emphasis added). The trial court alone must find “the facts . . . [t]hat sufficient aggravating circumstances exist” and “[t]hat there are insufficient mitigating circumstances to outweigh the aggravating circumstances.” “[T]he jury’s function under the Florida death penalty statute is advisory only.” Spaziano v. State, 433 So. 2d 508, 512 (Fla. 1983). The State cannot now treat the advisory recommendation by the jury as the necessary factual finding that Ring requires.

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Florida launches its second salvo at Hurst himself, arguing that he admitted in various contexts that an aggravating circumstance existed. Even if Ring normally requires a jury to hear all facts necessary to sentence a defendant to death, Florida argues, “Ring does not require jury findings on facts defendants have admitted.” Brief for Respondent 41. Florida cites our decision in Blakely v. Washington, 542 U. S. 296 (2004), in which we stated that under Apprendi, a judge may impose any sentence authorized “on the basis of the facts reflected in the jury verdict or admitted by the defendant.” 542 U. S., at 303 (emphasis deleted). In light of Blakely, Florida points to various instances in which Hurst’s counsel allegedly admitted the existence of a robbery. …

Blakely, however, was a decision applying Apprendi to facts admitted in a guilty plea, in which the defendant necessarily waived his right to a jury trial. See 542 U. S., at 310–312. Florida has not explained how Hurst’s alleged admissions accomplished a similar waiver. …

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The State next argues that stare decisis compels us to uphold Florida’s capital sentencing scheme. …

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Time and subsequent cases have washed away the logic of Spaziano and Hildwin. The decisions are overruled to the extent they allow a sentencing judge to find an aggravating circumstance, independent of a jury’s factfinding, that is necessary for imposition of the death penalty.

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The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury. 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.

The judgment of the Florida Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

So ordered.

 

Justice Breyer, concurring in the judgment.

For the reasons explained in my opinion concurring in the judgment in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U. S. 584, 613–619 (2002), I cannot join the Court’s opinion. As in that case, however, I concur in the judgment here based on my view that “the Eighth Amendment requires that a jury, not a judge, make the decision to sentence a defendant to death.” Id., at 614; see id., at 618 (“[T]he danger of unwarranted imposition of the [death] penalty cannot be avoided unless ‘the decision to impose the death penalty is made by a jury rather than by a single government official’” (quoting Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U. S. 447, 469 (1984) (Stevens, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part))). No one argues that Florida’s juries actually sentence capital defendants to death—that job is left to Florida’s judges. Like the majority, therefore, I would reverse the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court.

 

Justice Alito, dissenting.

As the Court acknowledges, “this Court ‘repeatedly has reviewed and upheld Florida’s capital sentencing statute over the past quarter of a century.’” Ante, at 8. And as the Court also concedes, our precedents hold that “‘the Sixth Amendment does not require that the specific findings authorizing the imposition of the sentence of death be made by the jury.’” Ante, at 9 (quoting Hildwin v. Florida, 490 U. S. 638, 640–641 (1989) (per curiam); emphasis added); see also Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U. S. 447, 460 (1984). The Court now reverses course, striking down Florida’s capital sentencing system, overruling our decisions in Hildwin and Spaziano, and holding that the Sixth Amendment does require that the specific findings authorizing a sentence of death be made by a jury. I disagree.

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… [E]ven if Ring is assumed to be correct, I would not extend it. Although the Court suggests that today’s holding follows ineluctably from Ring, the Arizona sentencing scheme at issue in that case was much different from the Florida procedure now before us. In Ring, the jury found the defendant guilty of felony murder and did no more. … Under that system, the jury played no role in the capital sentencing process.

The Florida system is quite different. In Florida, the jury sits as the initial and primary adjudicator of the factors bearing on the death penalty. After unanimously determining guilt at trial, a Florida jury hears evidence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. At the conclusion of this separate sentencing hearing, the jury may recommend a death sentence only if it finds that the State has proved one or more aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt and only after weighing the aggravating and mitigating factors.

Once the jury has made this decision, the trial court performs what amounts, in practical terms, to a reviewing function. … No Florida trial court has overruled a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence for more than 15 years.

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