Death sentence overturned for Orlando murderer Bessman Okafor

New penalty phase ordered for convicted killer, case assigned to SA Brad King

Bessman Okafor.
Bessman Okafor.

The state Supreme Court has overturned the death sentence of Bessman Okafor, an Orlando man who was convicted of murdering a witness who was set to testify against him. 

"We affirm Okafor’s conviction, but because the jury did not unanimously find the facts necessary to impose death and did not render a final unanimous verdict to recommend the death penalty, we vacate his death sentence and remand for a new penalty phase," the justices wrote in their ruling.

Hours after the ruling was released, Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order removing the Okafor case from Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala and reassigning it to neighboring State Attorney Brad King. This marks the 24th case removed from Ayala since she announced that her office would no longer seek the death penalty.

A jury voted 11-1 in 2015 to sentence Okafor to death for the murder of Alex Zaldivar. A new law signed in March ruled that a unanimous jury vote is required for any death sentence conviction. Florida's former death penalty conviction procedure was found unconstitutional in January 2016.

After that ruling, one of Okafor's attorneys announced that he would attempted to get his client off death row. Attorney Valarie Linnen told the Florida Supreme Court on March 8 that Okafor's conviction and penalty should be overturned, because the evidence against him was circumstantial at best. 

Assistant state attorney Vivian Singelton disagreed, saying that text messages Okafor sent before the murder and a Google search for "How to remove gun shot residue" proved that he planned his crime in advance.

"The jury could reasonably conclude that Okafor planned, coordinated and executed the murder and attempted murders in this case. Accordingly, we find competent, substantial evidence in the record to affirm Okafor’s conviction for the first-degree murder of Alex Zaldivar," the justices wrote in their ruling.

Okafor fatally shot Alex Zaldivar, 19, execution-style in 2012 because Zaldivar was going to testify against him in a home invasion case. Okafor also shot two other witnesses, for which he was convicted on two counts of attempted first-degree murder.

Alex Zaldivar's father, Rafael Zaldivar, has spoken out in favor of the death penalty in Okafor's case on multiple occassions. He hosted a news conference in Orlando shortly after Ayala announced that she would not seek the death penalty in any case her office tries.

Rafael Zaldivar said he heard the news about Okafor's sentence being overturned on Thursday while he was getting ready to board a plane to Puerto Rico for a family vacation.

He said he requested that Scott reassign Okafor's case to King.

"Unfortunately, we have to deal with Mrs. Aramis Ayala with all this crap. You know, she has really thrown a monkey wrench to my family, and it's really sad we have to deal with this, but  you know, it's terrible what she's doing," Rafael Zaldivar said. "It's terrible what she's doing. It's unbelievable, it's unbelievable."

Rafael Zaldivar said he will make the trip to Tallahassee on June 28 when Scott and Ayala appear in the Florida Supreme Court for oral arguments in their death penalty lawsuit.

"It was a heinous crime this guy executed my son. He was a state witness, and I want the same thing to happen to Bessman Okafor that he is properly executed, and you know, he needs to be put down," Rafael Zaldivar said.

Ayala's office released a statement late Thursday afternoon about the ruling.

"I am very pleased that Bessman Okafor’s conviction for his horrific crimes was upheld today by the Supreme Court of Florida. Florida’s High Court was tasked with attempting to resolve the chaos surrounding Florida’s death penalty statute after being stricken down by the United States Supreme Court early last year. I am not surprised by the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling nor the Governors’ hasty reaction."

Click here to read the Supreme Court's ruling in its entirety. 

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