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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Florida's death penalty sentencing process violates the constitutional rights of criminal defendants by granting judges powers that juries should wield, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday, siding with a man convicted of murdering a fried-chicken restaurant manager.
The court's 8-1 decision means death row inmate Timothy Hurst, 37, could be re-sentenced for the 1998 murder of Cynthia Harrison in Pensacola, potentially avoiding capital punishment. The case will return to the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether Hurst's death sentence can be upheld on other grounds.
Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing on behalf of the court, 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.
The court faulted Florida's system for allowing judges, not juries, to find aggravating factors that determine whether a defendant is eligible for execution.
A jury, by a 7-5 vote, had recommended to the judge that Hurst be executed but did not specify what aggravating factors it had found.
The judge then sentenced Hurst to death after concluding, independent of the jury, that two aggravating factors applied: that Hurst committed the murder while committing a robbery and that the crime was particularly heinous.
The case did not touch upon the bigger and more divisive question of the constitutionality of the death penalty.
Florida has 390 people on death row, second most of any state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The ruling could affect other pending Florida death penalty cases. Alabama, Montana and Delaware have similar sentencing schemes that also could be affected.
The justices based their ruling on a 2002 Supreme Court decision in an Arizona case that declared that a jury, not a judge, must determine the facts necessary to impose a death sentence. Sotomayor said Florida's system, which provides for an advisory jury recommendation, fell short.
"The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury's mere recommendation is not enough," Sotomayor wrote.
Hurst, described by his lawyers as mentally disabled with "borderline intelligence" and an IQ between 70 and 78, was sentenced to death for the murder of Harrison, a manager at a Popeyes restaurant where he worked.
Hurst cut and stabbed Harrison with a box cutter, left her body, bound and gagged, in a freezer and stole about $1,000 from the restaurant, jurors found. He later spent $300 on rings at a pawn shop.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Editing by Will Dunham