A high-profile Pinellas County murder case recently got new life from the Florida Supreme Court. The decision is a good example of how seriously courts take murder charges, and also of the strict legal requirements that have to be met before a person can be sentenced to death.
The defendant was charged in 2006 with the murder of two victims. He had worked as the couple’s personal fitness trainer and allegedly murdered the couple during a robbery in which he stole a safe containing $88,000 in cash. The couple was stabbed to death, and their home was set on fire after the robbery. A jury trial took place in 2010, at the close of which the jury convicted the defendant on two counts of first-degree murder. During a separate penalty phase of the trial, the 12-member jury voted 7-5 in favor of recommending the death sentence. Although the defendant’s lawyers presented evidence showing that he suffered from extreme mental and emotional impairments, the judge declined to mitigate his sentence. Instead, the judge sentenced the defendant to death.
The defendant later appealed the sentence to the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that putting him to death under the circumstances was unconstitutional. The state’s highest court agreed, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida. In that case, the justices said that a jury, rather than a judge, has to find every fact necessary to impose a death sentence. A mere recommendation is not enough. When the Hurst case was sent from the U.S. Supreme Court to the Florida Supreme Court, the state justices added that the jury must vote unanimously in order to impose a death sentence.