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Justices Continue Rejecting Death Row Appeals

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Florida Supreme Court

The Florida Supreme Court opinions started showing up in batches of 10 last week.

The opinions were nearly identical, except for the names of the Death Row inmates seeking new sentences and a few details of each case. But the conclusion was the same: No dice.

With a batch released Monday, the total number of rejections reached 50. The common thread was that all the inmates’ sentences were finalized before a June 2002 cutoff date that otherwise could have allowed many of them to be resentenced.

The way the Florida Supreme Court released the batches of opinions was highly unusual. But the underlying issues in the 50 cases traced to a January 2016 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that the state’s death-penalty sentencing process was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries, in deciding whether defendants should be executed.

That 2016 ruling effectively halted capital punishment in Florida for more than 18 months, as lawmakers and courts grappled with changes in the system. As part of that, the Florida Supreme Court ruled juries must unanimously agree on critical findings before judges can impose death sentences and must unanimously recommend the death penalty. In the past, juries could recommend death by majority votes.

The Florida Supreme Court’s unanimity requirements allowed many Death Row inmates to argue that those standards should be applied retroactively to their already-decided cases. That has sent cases back to lower courts for resentencing.

But there was a catch for people on Death Row for long periods: The Florida Supreme Court made the new sentencing requirements apply to cases since June 2002. That is when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling known as Ring v. Arizonathat was a premise for striking down Florida's death-penalty sentencing system in 2016.

Each of the 50 appeals rejected during the past week involved cases decided before the Ring decision — with a couple just missing the cutoff.

Perhaps the best example came Monday, when the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Death Row inmate Gary Ray Bowles in the 1994 murder of Walter Hinton in Jacksonville Beach. Bowles’ sentence became final June 17, 2002 — a week before the June 24, 2002, Ring decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to court documents.

In an appeal filed in October, Bowles’ attorney contended that the cutoff date violated constitutional protections against “arbitrary and capricious imposition of the death penalty.” A jury unanimously recommended that Bowles receive the death penalty in the Hinton murder, but Bowles’ attorney, Francis Shea, argued in the appeal that it was unclear whether jurors also unanimously agreed on the critical findings.

“(Bowles’) jury made only a recommendation to impose the death penalty, without making any findings of fact as to any of the elements required for a death sentence under Florida law,” Shea wrote. “This (Supreme) Court cannot reliably infer from the jury's recommendation whether the jury unanimously found0 — or a hypothetical jury in a constitutional proceeding would have unanimously found —  all the other requisite elements for a death sentence. There is a reasonable probability that individual jurors based their overall recommendation for death on a different underlying calculus.”

But Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office pointed in an October brief to the Florida Supreme Court’s past rulings on issues related to the Ring decision cutoff date and said Bowles has “demonstrated no cause for this (Supreme) Court to recede from its lengthy case precedent.”

In issuing its two-page opinion Monday, the Supreme Court cited precedent in rejecting a resentencing for Bowles, who also has received to life sentences for 1994 murders in Nassau and Volusia counties, according to the Florida Department of Corrections website. A 1999 Florida Times-Union story said Bowles had admitted to killing six gay men in Florida and other states, including Hinton.

Along with Bowles, the other Death Row inmates who lost appeals Monday were Michael Bernard Bell in a Duval County case; Paul Alfred Brown in a Hillsborough County case; Mark Allen Davis in a Pinellas County case; Charles Kenneth Foster in a Bay County case; Kevin Don Foster in a Lee County case; Konstantinos X. Fotopoulos in a Volusia County case; Guy R. Gamble in a Lake County case; Brandy Bain Jennings in a Collier County case; and Robert Joe Long in a Hillsborough County case.