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Supreme Court Weighs Reinstating Death Sentences

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Florida Department of Corrections
The Florida Channel
The Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in two cases that could lead to reinstating death sentences for two convicted murderers.

After issuing a bombshell decision in January about the death penalty, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in two potentially far-reaching cases about whether that decision should lead to reinstating death sentences for two convicted murderers.

Some justices appeared skeptical of arguments by lawyers in Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office, who said the January ruling should lead to reinstating death sentences for Bessman Okafor, who was convicted in a 2012 murder in Orange County, and Michael James Jackson, who was convicted in two 2005 murders in Duval County.

Both men were initially sentenced to death but had those sentences set aside because of a 2016 Supreme Court ruling that, in part, required unanimous jury recommendations before defendants could receive the death penalty. Okafor and Jackson have been awaiting new sentencing hearings in lower courts since 2017.

The Supreme Court in the January decision reversed key parts of the 2016 ruling, including the requirement for unanimous jury recommendations in death cases. Seizing on that, Moody’s office contends that Okafor and Jackson should not receive new sentencing hearings --- and that their original death sentences should be reinstated.

Okafor’s sentence, for example, was vacated after the 2016 ruling because a jury had recommended by an 11-1 vote that he be executed for the murder of Alex Zaldivar during a home-invasion robbery. With the January Supreme Court decision doing away with the unanimous jury requirement, Assistant Attorney General Doris Meacham argued Tuesday that a court mandate about him receiving a new sentencing hearing is no longer valid.

“His death sentence is constitutional,” Meacham said. “To ask the lower courts to go forward with a resentencing that is no longer necessary is not justice.”

But attorneys for Okafor and Jackson said the state does not have legal justification for reinstating the original death sentences and scuttling the new sentencing hearings. Maria DeLiberato, an attorney for Jackson, described the state’s position in his case as “effectively a hail Mary.”

“There has to be confidence in the process,” DeLiberato said. “There has to be finality.”

Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Alan Lawson and Carlos Muniz asked questions during the arguments that indicated at least some skepticism of the state’s arguments. In the Jackson case, for instance, prosecutors did not earlier appeal a court order granting a new sentencing hearing, raising questions about whether they could now seek to avoid the hearing.

“It does seem like you are trying to get a very belated second bite at the apple,” Muniz said to Assistant Attorney General Stephen Ake during the arguments in the Jackson case. “I mean, how does that make sense?”

It is unclear when justices will rule in the cases, with opinions typically issued months after oral arguments are held.

The arguments track back to a January 2016 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case known as Hurst v. Florida. That ruling found the state’s death-penalty system was unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries, in imposing death sentences.

The Florida Supreme Court in October 2016, in the similarly named case of Hurst v. State, interpreted and applied the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. That ruling required unanimous jury recommendations before death sentences could be imposed and dealt with a critical issue of jurors finding what are known as “aggravating factors” that can justify death sentences.

But the Florida Supreme Court last year became more conservative after the retirement of longtime justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, who had been part of a generally liberal majority. That shift was apparent in the January decision to back away from the Hurst v. State ruling.

The attorney general’s office moved quickly after the January decision to argue for reinstatement of the death sentences of Okafor and Jackson. But the case has what DeLiberato described in an April brief as “sweeping implications” that go beyond the two men.

“The issues raised in the state’s petition and Mr. Jackson’s response involve important rights protected by the Florida and federal constitutions, and include issues of retroactivity, finality and stability of the law, equal protection, arbitrary imposition of the death penalty, and the jurisdictional role of the courts,” DeLiberato wrote. “The determination of these issues will affect not just Mr. Jackson, but also those capital defendants who have been granted new penalty phase trials across the state of Florida in light of Hurst, but who have not yet been given their penalty phase retrials.”

-- News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.