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.
“The jury in this case did not make any of the requisite factual findings, and the vote to impose a sentence of death was seven to five, the bare minimum to recommend death prior to Hurst,” the court explained. In other words, there was evidence presented of factors that would have supported a more severe sentence, including that the murders were committed during the commission of another crime and that the killings were particularly gruesome. There was also evidence of mitigating factors related to the defendant’s mental and emotional impairment. But it was not clear whether the jury weighed each of those individual factors. “Given the seven-to-five recommendation for death, it is impossible for us to conclude that the Hurst error in this case was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” the court said.
If you or a loved one has been charged with a sex crime in Florida, it is essential that you seek the advice and counsel of an experienced lawyer. Clearwater homicide defense attorney Will Hanlon is a seasoned lawyer who fights aggressively on behalf of clients charged with a wide range of offenses. Call our offices at (727) 897-5413 or contact us online to speak with Mr. Hanlon about your case.
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