Judge denies motion to reimpose death penalty on convicted killer

Bessman Okafor’s death sentence overturned by Florida Supreme Court in 2017

ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s been eight years since Rafael Zaldivar’s 19-year-old son was slain, and now the fate of his son’s killer is likely going back to the Florida Supreme Court after an Orange County Circuit judge denied a motion to reimpose the death sentence.

“All I want is justice for my son,” Zaldivar said. “Is that too much to ask for?”

A jury voted 11-1 to sentence Bessman Okafor to death in 2015 for the execution-style fatal shooting of Alex Zaldivar, who was scheduled to testify against Okafor in a separate home invasion case. Two years later, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the death sentence.

“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.

Rafael Zaldivar’s holds a picture of his 19-year-old son, Alex Zaldiver in front of the Orange County Courthouse on Feb. 14 2020.
Rafael Zaldivar’s holds a picture of his 19-year-old son, Alex Zaldiver in front of the Orange County Courthouse on Feb. 14 2020.

Assistant state attorney Ryan Williams said this latest Supreme Court Ruling has put more than 200 death row cases in question.

On Friday, Circuit Judge Julie O’Kane denied the state’s motion to reinstate Okafor’s death sentence and said the case should proceed with re-sentencing.

“The law has changed, it would be a waste of judicial resources, a waste of state funds to proceed with re-sentencing,” Prosecutor Ken Nunnelly said.

Okafor’s defense attorney Marc Burnham argued Circuit Judge Julie O’Kana doesn’t have the power to reinstate the death penalty based on current law, and she agreed.

“The state’s motion asking to reimpose the death penalty will be denied,” O’Kana said.” I don’t believe as a circuit judge, I can ignore the mandate directing me to conduct a re-sentencing hearing.”

O’Kane says, as it stands now, she has a mandate from the Florida Supreme Court to conduct a re-sentencing hearing in the case. If the state’s highest court rescinds that mandate, following their recent reversal on another case, then she will act. However, she doesn’t believe she has the authority now.

State prosecutors said they plan on taking the case to the Supreme Court.

The re-sentencing hearing was scheduled for March 9.

“For the last three years, death penalty litigation in the state of Florida has been in the state of flux, and it remains that way,” Williams said. “It remains that way, and we are just doing our best to follow the rules and make sure justice is done.”

However, Williams says he is working with the Florida Attorney General’s office hoping to file an appeal with the Supreme Court, asking for the court to mandate Okafor’s death penalty be reinstated.

“I want him dead,” Zaldivar said. “That’s it."