FL Supreme Court willing to reverse precedent, but declines invitation to reinstate 100 death sentences

By: - December 1, 2020 7:00 am

Florida’s execution chamber. Credit: Wikimedia

The Florida Supreme Court has made clear its wiliness to overturn its own precedents — even relatively recent ones, as in January when the justices ruled that trial courts no longer need unanimous jury recommendations to justify the death penalty.

It turns out there’s a limit to how far the court’s fresh conservative majority will go. In two rulings handed down last week, the court refused Attorney General Ashley Moody’s request that it reinstate death sentences in light of that January ruling.

The court’s reasoning boils down to this: For procedural reasons, it can’t simply reinstate a sentence it has ordered vacated merely because it since then has changed its mind about the legal principle at issue.

The outcome clarifies the legal positions for scores of convicted murderers in Florida, including the two involved in the rulings the court handed down on Wednesday: Bessman Okafor, convicted of a 2012 murder arising from a home invasion in Ocoee, and Michael James Jackson in two Duval County murders in 2005.

Jackson’s rehearing had been set for February but was delayed after the state asked the court to consider reinstating his original sentence.

“We hold that our judgment vacating Okafor’s death sentence is final, that neither we nor the trial court can lawfully reinstate that sentence, and that resentencing is therefore required,” the court said in an unsigned opinion in that case.

“In reaching this conclusion, we acknowledge the burden that resentencing proceedings will place on the victims of Okafor’s crimes. We also acknowledge the consequences for the victims in similar cases that will be governed by our decision here. Nonetheless, our holding is compelled by applicable law,” the court said.

“It’s a relief-inducing decision that brings about some cautious hope for the capital defense community: There is a limit to which the court is willing to go,” said Hannah Gorman, director of The Balanced Justice Project at the Florida International University College of Law.

“We respect the court’s decision in this matter,” Lauren Cassedy, a spokeswoman for Moody, said in a written statement.

Florida Attorney Ashley Moody (from the Florida Channel)

“We took these appeals to prevent the victims’ families and loved ones of these horrific crimes from having to endure another painful and emotional sentencing because the court reversed itself [on the need for unanimous jury recommendations]. We will work with our partners in the state attorney’s offices to ensure that justice is done in each of the cases affected by this ruling.”

The legal situation arose from a philosophical shift on the court following the retirement of three liberal justices and their replacement by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis with conservatives, which shifted the court’s balance markedly.

In Florida, the jury initially votes on whether to convict on first-degree murder charges and then meets during a sentencing phase to recommend to the judge whether to impose death or life in prison.

The court ruled in 2016 that Florida’s system of capital punishment was unconstitutional because it allowed juries to recommend the death sentence on less than unanimous votes. The court at the time was interpreting a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that the system was unfair because it gave too much discretion to judges rather than juries in imposing capital punishment.

Switched directions

The Florida court’s new majority switched directions in January, ruling in State v. Poole that unanimous verdicts for death no longer were required. Additionally, the Florida Legislature passed a law requiring unanimous verdicts that still stands.

Even so, the court said in its ruling in the Jackson case, under state law the accused now “stands in the same position as any other defendant who has been charged with murder but who has not yet been tried. … However, [his] prior convictions cannot be retroactively reinstated.”

Procedurally, the original death sentence became a “nullity,” the justices said in Okafor’s case.

“There is no sentence until [the trial] court imposes a new one,” they added. “Accordingly, as to Okafor’s death sentence (though not his murder conviction), our judgment ‘wiped the slate clean.’”

The court noted that state law gives it 120 days to change its mind about a mandate ordering a new hearing. That threshold has long passed in these cases.

“In order to change this status quo — to undo our final judgment vacating Okafor’s death sentence — we would have to recall our mandate and then render a different judgment. But the law constrains our ability to do so,” the court said.

That leaves the accused “in the same position as any other defendant who has been charged with murder but has not yet been tried,” the court said.

“While Poole established a new constitutional baseline going forward, our judgment vacating Okafor’s death sentence is final and no longer subject to reconsideration.”

According to Gorman, the ruling affects 100 inmates still awaiting resentencing under the old precedent. Another 45 people had already been resentenced, of whom 37 were sentenced to life without parole and eight to death again.

For the 100 inmates, “the impact is their death sentences will not be reinstated without a penalty-phase trial,” Gorman said.

“They now have the opportunity to be tried under the new law requiring a 12-0 jury recommendation prior to a death sentence being received. Their previous death sentences were handed down under what is now declared unconstitutional sentencing scheme — to have reinstated these would have violated the law.”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.