What is a Spencer Hearing?

Spencer hearings are a relatively recent legal innovation that has emerged in the Florida criminal court system since the state’s supreme court ruling regarding a case in 1993. Essentially, these hearings give defendants an opportunity to provide additional evidence to change the penalties imposed by sentencing. The prosecution also participates in the hearing and may also exhibit evidence to support the penalties initially imposed by the jury’s decision.

Origin of Spencer Hearings

Spencer hearings trace their origins back to the 1993 case of Spencer vs. Florida, according to a report by News4Jax. The defendant in the case was accused and convicted of the first-degree murder of his wife, in addition to aggravated assault and other felony charges. Spencer opposed the jury’s initial conviction carrying the weight of the death penalty, claiming that inappropriate aggravating circumstances were considered during the trial.

He appealed the court’s decision to the Florida Supreme Court, which remanded the case back to the judge to reconsider the application of the death penalty. Spencer and his attorneys used the hearing to present several arguments to prove significant mitigating circumstances, including the influence of a mental disturbance and inability to understand the morality his own actions at the time. While the judge overseeing the hearing ultimately confirmed the decision of the jury, it still set a precedent for future cases.

Since the Spencer ruling was made by the Florida Supreme Court, the custom has only been observed within the state’s court system so far.

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Format and Protocol

Defendants have some leeway when planning their testimony at a Spencer hearing, which is less formal than trial court proceedings. The may speak for themselves when presenting evidence or allow their attorney to represent them. The hearings are generally scheduled sometime after the trial to allow both parties to conduct research and develop arguments to support their view.

Spencer hearings provide defendants with the opportunity to appeal directly to the judge regarding the recommendation put forth by the jury. They are not an avenue for appealing the conviction. Instead, they focus exclusively on the severity of penalties imposed. So far, the hearings have been used to argue for a life prison sentence as opposed to execution.

While Spencer hearings are currently unique to the state of Florida, the precedents set there could contribute to rulings made by courts in other jurisdictions. This concept of a post-trial hearing is particularly relevant in states that allow juries to recommend capital punishment. As these hearings become more prevalent they will likely become one of the many conventional tactics commonly used by defense attorneys to protect their clients.