By Jennifer Harrison, Marion County Public Defender Agency
The United States Supreme Court term is up and running and one of the hot button topics is the 8th Amendment and the application of the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause. This year the SCOTUS will hear five cases involving 8th Amendment issues or undercurrents, all within the first three weeks of the term. Four of the cases involve issues with the death penalty and one involves whether the holding in Miller v. Alabama (holding the 8th Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates LWOP for juvenile homicide offenders) should be applied retroactively to Henry Montgomery, a man serving a mandatory life sentence since he was 17. For those keeping track at home, the SCOTUS ended last year’s term with Glossip v. Gross where Justice Breyer’s dissent questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty.
The Court previously heard two such cases on October 7. Last week, the court heard two other cases: Montgomery v. Louisiana and Hurst v. Florida. As detailed above, Montgomery deals with a man serving a mandatory life sentence after his juvenile conviction for murder. The Louisiana Supreme Court rejected Montgomery’s contention his sentence should be overturned since Miller only banned mandatory life sentencing schemes and not all juvenile LWOP sentences. Much of the oral argument focused on whether or not the United States Supreme Court had jurisdiction to hear the case (which both Louisiana and Montgomery agreed they did). When discussing the substantive issue of retroactivity, the justices seemed divided.
In Hurst, Timothy Hurst is seeking relief on his death penalty sentence from a re-trial. After being found guilty, the jury voted 7-5 that he was eligible for the death penalty. Under Florida trial procedure, the recommendation was sent to a judge who affirmed the death penalty sentence. The issue facing the SCOTUS is whether Florida’s sentencing scheme violates precedent holding a capital sentencing scheme violates the 6th Amendment if it gives the judge, rather than the jury, the authority to determine whether the facts of the case are sufficient to impose the death penalty. Specifically in this case, the judge rather than the jury articulated the aggravating factors making Hurst eligible for the death penalty.
The last case set for November 2 more closely involves 6th Amendment issues regarding jury selection and Batson challenges, but as it is a capital case, it is no doubt the 8th Amendment concerns addressed by the Court will be present in the room.
This post was contributed by Jennifer Harrison, Marion County Public Defender Agency. If you would like to submit content or write an article for the Criminal Justice Section page, please email Rachel Beachy at firstname.lastname@example.org.