A brutal Pensacola murder case may end up setting a new standard for how Florida handles the death penalty.
Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments in the case of Timothy Hurst, a former fast food worker found guilty of tying up his manager in a Popeyes freezer and stabbing her to death. A jury recommended 7-5 that Hurst be executed, and a judge sentenced him to death. Now, Hurst is challenging the process as unconstitutional.
Florida is one of a few states where judges issue the death penalty and juries play a strictly advisory role. Florida is the only state where the jury doesn't have to be unanimous or explain what factors weighed in their decision.
The state's policy seems to go against a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said juries should decide both when the death penalty will be imposed and what aggravating factors make the death penalty appropriate. Hurst's attorneys argued that Florida policies violate the the Sixth or Eighth amendments.
"Of the 35 death penalty states, only Florida permits imposition of a death sentence without a jury concluding that either,1., at least one specified aggravating factor is present or ,2., that a death sentence is warranted," Hurst's attorney wrote. "Twenty seven of these states require both findings. Florida requires neither."
Hurst's counsel wrote that jurors recommended capital punishment by only the slimmest of margins and without any explanation of their votes. He said it's possible they weren't even considering the same aggravating factors.
"This possibility hardly inspires confidence that Florida has any clue what the jury's vote meant in this case," the document said. "The jury's vote gave no clear voice of the community that death was justified."
In 1998, Hurst was an employee at the Popeyes on Nine Mile Road. Witnesses testified Hurst bound his manager, 28-year-old Cynthia Harrison, with electrical tape, slashed her with a box cutter more than 60 times and left her body in a freezer.
Hurst was found guilty of first-degree murder in 2000, and a jury recommended death 11-1. Hurst won an appeal and re-sentencing because his counsel was not allowed to present evidence that Hurst may have a mental disability. He was sentenced to death again in 2012.
Public Defender Bruce Miller said the Supreme Court's ruling on the case could have far-reaching impacts on all the state's capital cases.
"In virtually every case where the state sought death, the defense counsel has routinely found Florida's sentencing is unconstitutional," Miller said. "It's overdue that the U.S. Supreme Court decided to take on this issue. Defense attorney's have been making this claim since 2002, and the legislature has refused to act."