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High Court: Florida Death Penalty System Is Unconstitutional

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WASHINGTON (CBSMiami) – The Governor, his attorney general, and court officials across the state are all reviewing the decision from the high court that could drastically change Florida's death penalty system.

In an 8-1 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the system Florida courts have used to put inmates on death row for decades, saying it wrongly gives judges more authority than the jury.

The ruling centers around Timothy Hurst who murdered his manager at a restaurant in Pensacola back in 1998.

In a 7-5 vote jurors voted in favor of death, and the judge made the final decision to give him the death penalty.

In the majority opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, "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."

Attorney General Pam Bondi issued the following statement regarding Tuesday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling:

"In light of today's United States Supreme Court decision holding Florida's capital sentencing procedure unconstitutional, the state will need to make changes to its death-sentencing statutes.  I will work with state lawmakers this legislative session to ensure that those changes comply with the Court's latest decision. The impact of the Court's ruling on existing death sentences will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis."

"I don't think it's a great surprise this decision came down putting Florida in line with other jurisdictions," said attorney and former state and federal prosecutor David Weinstein.

Weinstein told CBS4's Natalia Zea that state lawmakers now have their work cut out for them.

"Now the legislature has to do something about correcting the procedure," he said.

Howard Simon, president of the American Civil Liberties Union which advocates against the death penalty, says he has pushed the state to change the law for years. He now wants the 390 people currently on death row to be spared, in part to keep their cases from clogging up the court system.

"The simplest thing would be to convert those death sentences in to sentences of life imprisonment," Simon said.

Weinstein does not believe they will all be eligible to have their death sentences reviewed.

"If your case is deemed final on what's called direct review, you've already exhausted your appeals, you're not going to get another crack at the sentence," Weinstein said.

He also believes the families of the 91 people already executed under this system will have no legal recourse.

"Up until today, every time the Florida death penalty's been reviewed it's been found to be constitutional, so there is no rightful relief," Weinstein added.

Courts across the country are still reviewing the potential impact of the ruling.

A spokeswoman for Miami-Dade Courts released a statement to Zea, saying in part, "Any motions filed in the trial courts with respect to this ruling shall be addressed based on each case's individual merits and the status of the law as it develops in the Florida Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court and any future legislative action."

In addition to the judge versus jury power divide, Florida is the only state in the nation that does not require a jury to vote unanimously to impose a death sentence.

Simon says any new or amended law should change that.

"How can it be in Florida that it takes a unanimous jury to find somebody guilty, but a simple majority to sentence somebody to death? Unless Florida does adopt a unanimous requirement for a death sentence, that's only going to be the next U.S. Supreme Court case," he said.

Hurst's case will now go back to the Florida Supreme Court for review, and possibly a new sentencing hearing. Unless the state legislature changes the law before that hearing, however, any sentence imposed would be based on the newly-ruled unconstitutional system.

Click here to read the full ruling.

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