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Supreme Court Rejects Two Death Sentences

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
California Department of Corrections
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday overturned death sentences and ordered life in prison for two inmates, ruling in one case that a convicted murderer who was not the triggerman should not have received a harsher sentence than his co-defendants.
In the other case, the court's majority ruled that Terrance Tyrone Phillips should not have been sentenced to death for killing two men during a brawl because of Phillips' age --- 18 --- and below-average intelligence.

The majorities in both of Thursday's decisions vacated the convicted killers' death sentences and ordered lower courts to impose life sentences for Phillips and Robert Pernell McCloud.

In a scathing dissent, Justice Charles Canady warned that the order in McCloud's case could have a chilling effect on future prosecutions.

McCloud and four other men were involved in a 2009 raid on the Poinciana home of an alleged drug dealer, with two people, Dustin Freeman and Tamiqua Taylor, getting killed.

One of the five defendants was deemed ineligible for the death penalty because of his intellectual disability, while three others agreed to plead no contest to second-degree murder charges and to testify against McCloud. One co-defendant received a sentence of 10 years in prison, and two others were sentenced to 15 years.

In a 4-3 decision, the majority of justices relied on a "relative culpability analysis" to determine that McCloud's sentence was too harsh because none of the others involved were sentenced to die, while McCloud was not the triggerman, nor was he the mastermind or a dominant player in the crimes.

"On balance, the fact that McCloud's co-defendants were convicted of a lesser degree of murder is not dispositive of their relative culpabilities. Rather, the record taken as a whole sufficiently demonstrates that McCloud was, in fact, less culpable than those who escaped the death penalty," said the 41-page opinion by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Barbara Pariente and James E.C. Perry. Jstice Peggy Quince concurred in the result, but did fully sign on to the opinion.

Justice R. Fred Lewis dissented without a written opinion, while Canady, in a dissent joined by Justice Ricky Polston, argued that the majority's analysis was faulty.

Because he was the only co-defendant convicted of first-degree murder, McCloud did not receive disparate treatment, Canady wrote. Canady also chastised the majority for deciding that McCloud was not the shooter.

"Neither the jury nor the trial court made such a finding, and this (Supreme) Court is not in a position to do so," he wrote. "It is not the prerogative of this court to go beyond the verdict form and speculate about additional factual findings the jury may or may not have made in reaching its verdict."

The law allows prosecutors to enter plea agreements with co-defendants that result in lesser sentences for some, Canady pointed out.

"Nonetheless, with this decision, the majority has stripped Florida's state attorneys of their discretion to waive the death penalty for certain defendants without also foregoing the death penalty for other co-defendants who might later be viewed by this court as either equally culpable or less culpable on the face of the appellate record," he warned.

Canady and Polston also dissented in the 5-2 opinion overturning Phillips' death sentence.

Phillips was convicted in the Jacksonville murders of Mateo Perez and Renaldo Antunez-Padilla, who were killed after an altercation involving several other people on Christmas Eve in 2009. Phillips was 18 years old at the time the murders occurred. By an 8-4 vote, a jury recommended that Phillips receive the death penalty for each killing.

But on Thursday, the Supreme Court majority ruled that the death sentences were "disproportionate"” because of Phillips' age and intellectual ability.

A mental health expert testified that Phillips has “significantly subaverage intelligence," on the borderline range of intellectual functioning that places him in the bottom 5 percent of the population, according to the court record.

And Phillips in all likelihood did not plan to kill Perez and Antunez-Padilla, with the deaths happening during a melee inside an apartment, the majority concluded.

"We do not take lightly the tragic loss of two lives as a result of Phillips' actions," the majority wrote in a 20-page opinion. "However, while we affirm Phillips' convictions, because we conclude that the murders in this case are not among the most aggravated and least mitigated, the death penalty is a disproportionate punishment."

Duval County Circuit Judge Mark Hulsey, who sentenced Phillips to death in 2012, is the subject of an ongoing investigation into allegations of racism.

The Florida Supreme Court in September rejected a request by Phillips' lawyer, Martin McClain, to "get the facts" about highly publicized allegations against Hulsey.

McClain argued that the allegations of racism created questions about Hulsey's impartiality in handling the case of Phillips, who is black.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission in July filed a notice of formal charges against Hulsey for alleged racist and sexist comments, including an allegation that he once said blacks should "go back to Africa." Hulsey has denied the allegations, and the case remains pending.

Thursday's rulings came as Florida's death penalty remains in a state of flux in the aftermath of a pair of opinions issued by state's high court on Oct. 14. Those decisions found that a statute passed in March in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Hurst v. Florida was unconstitutional "because it requires that only 10 jurors recommend death as opposed to the constitutionally required unanimous, 12-member jury."

In the Hurst decision, issued in January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida's death penalty system was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries.