Florida prosecutors want to reinstate death sentence for Bessman Okafor

Death sentence for Okafor was overturned in June of 2017

Florida prosecutors want to reinstate death sentence for Bessman Okafor
Florida prosecutors want to reinstate death sentence for Bessman Okafor

Florida prosecutors want to reinstate the death sentence for Bessman Okafor, the latest in what has been a back and forth battle with the death penalty that has left the case in limbo.

Rafael Zaldivar, the father of the man Okafor was convicted of killing, said it’s been long road to justice.

“Eight years since 2012 and we can’t get justice for our son,” Zaldivar said. “We’ve taken care of everything except this guy, and this is the guy I want buried. I want him on death row. This is where he needs to stay.”

Back in 2015, a jury voted 11-1 to sentence Okafor to death for the murder of Alex Zaldivar.

Two years later, the state Supreme Court overturned the death sentence, giving Okafor a chance at life. He is set to be re-sentenced in March.

"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.

However, after yet another ruling by a new Florida Supreme Court, they ruled a unanimous jury should not be required to sentenced someone to death.

This comes after it was questioned in a case out of Polk County that Zaldivar said is nearly identical to Okafor’s.

“They reversed the case for the guys in Polk County, which is the same circumstances. It was 11-to-1. The aggravating factors are there. He had a past criminal history. He’s a past convicted felon, those are all aggravating factors and they fit the criteria of Bessman Okafor,” Zaldivar said.

Because of that, prosecutors filed motion to re-instate Okafor’s death penalty. Assistant State Attorney for the Fifth Judicial Circuit M. Ryan Williams released a statement about the ruling saying that re-sentencing trial shouldn’t happen, and Okafor’s death penalty should be reinstated.

“We believe the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Poole makes it clear that Mr. Okafor’s death sentence was constitutional in every sense. A jury of the Defendant’s peers found him guilty and recommended the Court impose death, and an experienced judge followed that recommendation after years of due process afforded to Mr. Okafor. Our motion simply seeks to reinstate the jury’s decision made after hearing all the evidence, and without having to ask victims and survivors to relive the worst moments of their lives,” Williams said.

However, for the first time Thursday we are hearing from Okafor's attorney. He believes Okafor still has his right to that second chance at life and should still have that re-sentencing hearing in March.

"In short, my position is that the Florida Supreme Court has ordered that Mr. Okafor is entitled to a new sentencing hearing and I object to any effort by the State to avoid that hearing," Marc Bunham wrote in a statement to News 6. "I reserve further comment for the court record."

We will see what both attorneys will have to say at hearing on the issue scheduled for Feb. 14.

According to News 6 legal expert Steven Kramer, this latest Supreme Court Ruling has put more than 150 death row cases in question.

About the Author:

Nadeen Yanes joined News 6 as a general assignment reporter in 2016. She grew up in Leesburg and graduated from the University of Florida. Nadeen has won three Associated Press Awards for her reporting on the Pulse Nightclub shooting, the trial of the Pulse gunman's wife and the capture of an accused cop killer, Markeith Loyd.