Tulsa, OK Criminal Defense & Family Law Blog

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Supreme Court Hands Down Historic Death Penalty Sentencing Opinion

What are the latest updates concerning American death penalty laws?

In terms of executions per capita, the state of Oklahoma ranks first in the nation, having executed 112 death row inmates since the re-inception of the death penalty in 1976. Since that time, the U.S. Supreme Court has tirelessly honed the scope of allowable death penalty procedures, particularly with regard to the type of offender eligible for execution and the method by which an execution may be carried out.

Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari in a case out of Florida involving the sentencing of a convict facing a possible death sentence. In Hurst v. Florida, the issue the jury considered was whether Hurst should be put to death for killing his co-worker . They found that the death penalty was an appropriate punishment given the aggravating factors presented post-conviction.

However, under Florida law, all criminal sentences – including capital punishment – are reviewable by the judge assigned to the proceeding. If, in the opinion of the court, a certain punishment is not suitable, the court may override the jury’s decision and enter its own sentence. In other words, the jury serves in an advisory role to the court, which Hurst argued violates the Sixth and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and that ,  only a jury should be permitted to render a death sentence.

After hearing oral arguments in October, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling on January 12, 2016 . By an 8-1 vote, the Court found that the Florida sentencing scheme was unconstitutional, and that only a jury may sentence a defendant to the death penalty. Further, a trial court is not within its powers to vacate a life or death sentence in favor of its own preferred sentence, as this violates the defendant’s rights under the Constitution.

The ruling, despite pertaining to a Florida case, will have a larger impact across the nation and will require each state to ensure its own death penalty sentencing schemes are up to par with the ruling in Hurst v. Florida.

If you are facing recent criminal charges, you should consult with a qualified criminal defense attorney. 

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