U.S. top court agrees to review Florida death sentence process

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 09, 2015 2:34 PM

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider an appeal filed by a convicted murderer serving on Florida's death row claiming the state's sentencing process in capital cases violates the U.S. Constitution.

Timothy Hurst, who his lawyers say is mentally disabled, was sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of a manager at a Popeye's Fried Chicken restaurant in Pensacola where he worked.

Key findings that determined whether he received the death penalty were impermissibly made by a judge rather than a jury, Hurst's lawyers say.

The Florida procedure violates the right to trial by jury guaranteed under the Constitution's Sixth Amendment based on a 2001 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, the lawyers argue. The high court said then that aggravating factors that can lead to an enhanced sentence must be determined by juries, not judges.

Hurst's lawyers also say the jury had to be unanimous when imposing a death sentence. Hurst was sentenced on a 7-5 vote.

Hurst cut and stabbed colleague Cynthia Harrison with a box cutter, the jury found. He left her body, bound and gagged, in the freezer and stole about $1,000 from the restaurant.

The Florida Supreme Court rejected Hurst's challenge in a September 2014 ruling.

The justices will hear oral arguments and decide the case in their next term, which starts in October and ends in June 2016.

The case is Hurst v. Florida, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-7505.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)