In a fascinating decision from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, Judge Jose Martinez has ruled that Florida’s capital sentencing statute violates Ring v. Arizona. In Paul Evans v. McNeil [pdf] (scroll to page 78 of the document), the district judge considers – and rejects – 16 claims for relief before finally getting to the Ring claim. For those who don’t know, in Ring v. Arizona, SCOTUS held:
This case concerns the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial in capital prosecutions. In Arizona, following a jury adjudication of a defendant’s guilt of first-degree murder, the trial judge, sitting alone, determines the presence or absence of the aggravating factors required by Arizona law for imposition of the death penalty.
In Walton v. Arizona, 497 U. S. 639 (1990), this Court held that Arizona’s sentencing scheme was compatible with the Sixth Amendment because the additional facts found by the judge qualified as sentencing considerations, not as “element[s] of the offense of capital murder.” Id., at 649. Ten years later, however, we decided Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U. S. 466 (2000), which held that the Sixth Amendment does not permit a defendant to be “expose[d] . . . to a penalty exceeding the maximum he would receive if punished according to the facts reflected in the jury verdict alone.” Id., at 483. This prescription governs, Apprendi determined, even if the State characterizes the additional findings made by the judge as “sentencing factor[s].” Id., at 492.
Apprendi’s reasoning is irreconcilable with Walton’s holding in this regard, and today we overrule Walton in relevant part. Capital defendants, no less than noncapital defendants, we conclude, are entitled to a jury determination of any fact on which the legislature conditions an increase in their maximum punishment.
In other words, any aggravating factor that exposes the defendant to the sentence of death must be found by a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt. A judge cannot find an aggravating factor that then increases the defendant’s punishment to death.
(1) A person who has been convicted of a capital felony shall be punished by death if the proceeding held to determine sentence according to the procedure set forth in s. 921.141 results in findings by the court that such person shall be punished by death, otherwise such person shall be punished by life imprisonment and shall be ineligible for parole.
(Emphasis mine). In a Florida capital case, the jury’s recommendation as to death is merely advisory. The court, after receiving the jury’s recommendation, must find the existence of an aggravating factor and determine whether that is outweighed by a mitigating factor and then decide whether to impose the sentence of death.
But this highly convoluted and “advisory” process gets even worse: a capital jury does not have to make specific factual findings. Reviewing courts never know what aggravating or mitigating factors were found. It is possible that some jurors found no aggravating factors, or that each juror found a different aggravating factor or all jurors found aggravating factors but some found they were outweighed by mitigation.
All it takes, in Florida, is a simple majority of jurors to recommend a sentence of death. Once that happens, a separate hearing is conducted in front of the judge only. The state and defense may present additional evidence and then the judge has to find an aggravating factor. Since the judge doesn’t know what aggravating factor the jury may have found, he may find an entirely different factor and not find the existence of the one the jury found!
This is squarely at odds with Ring. Under Ring, a jury – and only a jury – can find beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of an aggravating factor that exposes the defendant to the sentence of death.
What’s even more troubling according to Judge Martinez – and I agree – is that there is no evidence to show that the jury in Evans’ case found the existence of an aggravating factor by even a simple majority. Consider the scenario – as in this case – where the jury voted 9-3 in favor of death. Since we don’t know what aggravating factor was found by whom and how many, it’s possible that 5 jurors found the existence of one aggravating factor and 4 jurors another – both below the number 6, which is just half of the jury. While unanimity is not required, the Court is rightly troubled by the fact that this sentencing scheme can permit a man to be sentenced to death when not even 50% of the jurors agree on an aggravating factor.
In this news article, a (presumably) sitting Florida judge [Judge O.H. Eaton Jr., who offers legal analysis for WESH 2 - heh] opines that the decision affects only Mr. Evans and the effect on Florida’s death penalty as a whole will not be felt for years, if at all:
The judge’s decision in the murder-for-hire case only affects that particular trial. Eaton said Florida’s attorney general may file an appeal with the 11th Circuit Court in Atlanta.Eaton said that if the ruling has any effect on Florida’s death penalty statute, it will not be immediate.”That would be several years down the road,” Eaton said.
Perhaps the good judge missed this from footnote 33:
Here, the Court finds that Ring does apply in Florida and the Florida sentencing statute is unconstitutional.
Don’t even think about asking me what this means for the Casey Anthony trial.