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State Argues That Death Penalty Case Should Proceed

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

Attorney General Pam Bondi's office is arguing that a Pinellas County judge should be allowed to move forward in a death penalty case, even though the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a state capital-sentencing law is unconstitutional because it does not require unanimous jury verdicts for the sentence to be imposed.

Late last month, a majority of the Supreme Court granted a request by lawyers for convicted murderer Patrick Albert Evans to stop Circuit Judge Joseph Bulone from moving forward with a trial that had been slated to begin Oct. 31. Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented without comment.

The Supreme Court's halting of the Evans case was the strongest indicator yet that Florida's death penalty remains in flux in the aftermath of a pair of opinions issued by the 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 Evans' case, Bulone issued an order saying he would begin to empanel a death-qualified jury and, if Evans is found guilty of first-degree murder, "proceed to a penalty phase consistent with" the Oct. 14 Supreme Court decisions. But, arguing that judges shouldn't be allowed to rewrite the statute, lawyers for Evans immediately asked the high court to intervene, warning of a "jurisprudential quagmire" if the court allowed the case to go forward "without appropriate guidance."

In a 17-page response filed Monday, Assistant Attorney General Christina Pacheco said the circuit judge should be allowed to proceed, as long as he instructs the jury that a unanimous recommendation is required for a death sentence. "This procedural process falls within the trial judge's inherent ability to adopt appropriate mechanisms that are necessary to apply the law in a constitutional manner," Pacheco wrote.