By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Florida's sentencing process in death penalty cases violates the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday, siding with a death row inmate convicted in the 1998 murder of a fried-chicken restaurant manager.
The court's 8-1 decision means inmate Timothy Hurst, 37, could be re-sentenced, potentially avoiding the death penalty. First, the case will return to the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether Hurst's death sentence can be upheld on other grounds.
The ruling's direct impact is largely limited to Florida and does not touch upon the bigger and more divisive question of the constitutionality of the death penalty in general. It could affect other pending cases in the state, which has 390 people on death row.
Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing on behalf of the court's majority, said the right to an impartial jury guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment "required Florida to base Timothy Hurst's death sentence on a jury's verdict, not a judge's fact-finding."
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito was the sole dissenter.
Hurst, described by his lawyers as mentally disabled with "borderline intelligence" and an IQ between 70 and 78, was sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of Cynthia Harrison, a manager at a Popeyes restaurant in Pensacola where he worked.
Hurst cut and stabbed Harrison with a box cutter, and he left her body, bound and gagged, in a freezer and stole about $1,000 from the restaurant, a jury found. He later spent $300 on rings at a pawn shop.
The Supreme Court found that Florida's sentencing process violated the Sixth Amendment, which spells out fundamental rights of criminal defendants, because it allowed judges, rather than juries, to make key findings that led to Hurst's death sentence.
Florida's procedure ran afoul of the Sixth Amendment based on a 2001 Supreme Court ruling, the court held. The high court said in the earlier ruling that aggravating factors that are required for a death sentence must be determined by juries, not judges.
The Florida Supreme Court had rejected Hurst's challenge in a 2014 ruling.
Florida has carried out 92 executions since 1976, meaning it ranks fourth among the 50 U.S. states during that time period, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The case is Hurst v. Florida, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-7505.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Editing by Will Dunham)