Life or Death? That is the (Jury’s) Question.


Timothy Lee Hurst was charged and convicted with the gruesome May 2, 1998, killing of Cynthia Harrison during a robbery at the Popeye’s restaurant in Escambia County, Florida, where they were both employed. After he was granted a new sentencing trial because of counsel’s ineffective assistance[1], Hurst was again sentenced to death upon a jury’s recommendation by a seven to five vote.[2] The Supreme Court of Florida concluded the following: (1) the lower court was not required to conduct a second Atkins[3] hearing on remand, (2) any error in denying Hurst a second Atkins hearing was harmless, (3) the lower court was not required to submit the question of mental retardation to the jury, (4) the jury was not required to make specific findings authorizing the imposition of the death penalty, and (5) the death penalty was proportionate.[4] On March 9, 2015, certiorari was granted in part, limited to the question of whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme violates the Sixth amendment or the Eighth Amendment in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona.[5] The issue was argued before the Supreme Court of the United States on October 13, 2015.[6]

Under Ring v. Arizona, Florida’s current death penalty law absolutely violates a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial by jury because it allows a jury to make a life or death recommendation to a judge, who can then ultimately overrule at his or her discretion.[7] In Ring v. Arizona, the Supreme Court relied on Apprendi v. New Jersey, in holding that Arizona’s death penalty sentencing statute was unconstitutional under the Sixth Amendment because it made the judge, and not the jury, responsible for making the necessary findings of the aggravating factors, required to enforce a death sentence.[8] Furthermore, the Court opined that without finding such aggravating factors, a jury cannot sentence a defendant to death, but must only recommend life imprisonment.[9] The death penalty statute in Florida bears the same unconstitutional problems that led the Court in Ring to determine that Arizona’s death penalty statute was unconstitutional becauseit allows the death penalty to come from a judge’s factual findings on aggravating circumstances. The danger is that if a jury is instructed on its advisory role and understands that the final say is ultimately up to a judge, a jury might feel alleviated of responsibility and assume the outcome will be correctly decided in better hands. As stated in Caldwell v. Mississippi, there are high chances of unreliability and bias in favor of death sentences when a jury is instructed that its decision is shifted to a higher power.[10] One cause for such likely probability of bias is the jury’s notion that it is acceptable to err when deciding capital punishment because an error can be corrected on appeal. This notion leads undecided jurors into returning death sentences in order to rely on judges’ review.[11]

If only the illogicality of this statute ended there. The Florida statute in question also violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because of its policy on jury unanimity.[12] A simple suggestion to the judge is, in fact, anything but simple when it weighs so heavily on whether a person lives or dies. Yet, such a significant suggestion does not even require agreement by each member of the jury. Instead, all that is required to end the life of a human being is a majority vote. A Harvard Law School study conducted by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, found that requiring jury unanimity for death penalty sentences would lead to 70% fewer death verdicts in the state of Florida over the last 5 years.[13] Such a statistic adds to the apparent need for full agreement among each member of the jury before a sentence to kill is imposed. The reason behind a death sentence remains unidentifiedwhere the factors a jury based itsrecommendationsupon remain unknown. As counsel for the petitioner asked in oral argument in response to the lack of specificity regarding aggravating factors, how can the constitutionality of Ring v. Arizona be said to be satisfied “when we have no earthly idea what the jury found?”[14] Where a jury’s recommendation is not unanimous, death eligibility cannot be found because Florida’s statute defines eligibility for the death penalty by the existence of “sufficient” aggravating circumstances.[15]

The standard by which defendants could be killed cannot be measured by a mere majority recommendation that might not even be based on a finding of the aggravating factors defined under Florida law as requirements for imposing the death penalty. The Court must use its power to give juries back its proper role in determining sentences for capital crimes. If it does, perhaps the outcome of Timothy Lee Hurst’s case will offer reform in Florida’s capital sentencing procedures and impose revised standards that better protect one’s human dignity. The decision of the Supreme Court Justices may very likely quash many current death sentences in Florida. And rightly so.


[1] Hurst v. Fla., 18 So.3d 975 (Fla. 2009).

[2] Id.

[3] Atkins v. Va., 536 U.S. 304 (holding that the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids execution of mentally retarded defendants but leaving it to the states to determine the manner in which that constitutional restriction on execution of its sentences will be enforced).

[4] Id.

[5] Hurst v. Fla., 135 S.Ct 1531 (2015).

[6] Hurst v. Florida, Supreme Court of the United States Blog, (2015),

[7] See Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002).

[8] 536 U.S. 584 (2002).

[9] Id. at 603 (quoting NJ v. Apprendi, 530 U.S. 446, 538 ((O’Connor, J., dissenting)).

[10] 472 U.S. 320 (1985).

[11] Id. At 333.

[12] Fla. Stat. § 921.141 (2015).

[13] Studies: Requiring Jury Unanimity Would Decrease U.S. Death Sentences by 21%, Death Penalty Information Center (2015),

[14] Transcript of Oral Argument at 56:8-9, Timothy v. Hurst, No. 14-7505.

[15] Fla. Stat. § 921.141(2)(3), (2015).


Maria Ordonez is a 2017 Staff Editor of the Race and Social Justice Law Review.


One thought on “Life or Death? That is the (Jury’s) Question.

  1. Danielle

    This is a very well-written piece on a very important topic in our legal discourse. Florida needs to make some changes to its death penalty law. First and foremost, judges should not be given the final say in deciding whether to sentence a defendant to death. This is completely unconstitutional! Great work Maria!


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