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Supreme Court refuses to reinstate death penalty for man convicted of murder in Orange County

Bessman Okafor was convicted in 2017 for killing 19-year-old Alex Zaldivar

Bessman Okafor.
Bessman Okafor.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected requests by Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office to reinstate death sentences for two convicted murderers, ruling that earlier orders required the men to receive new sentencing hearings.

Justices issued opinions in cases from Orange and Duval counties that are expected to have broader ramifications: Defense attorneys said the decisions could apply to about 100 inmates.

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The opinions dealt with attempts to reinstate death sentences of Bessman Okafor, who was convicted for killing 19-year-old Alex Zaldivar in Orange County, and Michael James Jackson, who was convicted in two 2005 murders in Duval County.

Moody’s office went to the Supreme Court after justices in January backed away from a major 2016 ruling that included a requirement of unanimous jury recommendations before defendants could receive the death penalty.

Death sentences of Okafor and Jackson were tossed out because of the 2016 ruling, and new sentencing hearings were ordered --- though the hearings have not been held.

Moody’s office contended that the January Supreme Court decision backing away from the 2016 ruling should lead to reinstating the original death sentences instead of holding new sentencing hearings. But the Supreme Court on Wednesday said orders granting resentencing could not be undone.

“We hold that our judgment vacating Okafor’s death sentence is final, that neither we nor the trial court can lawfully reinstate that sentence, and that resentencing is therefore required,” justices wrote in the Okafor case. “In reaching this conclusion, we acknowledge the burden that resentencing proceedings will place on the victims of Okafor’s crimes. We also acknowledge the consequences for the victims in similar cases that will be governed by our decision here. Nonetheless, our holding is compelled by applicable law.”

All seven justices agreed with the results Wednesday, though Justice Jorge Labarga did not fully sign on to opinions shared by the others.

The circumstances in the cases of Okafor and Jackson were somewhat different. But, for example, the Supreme Court vacated Okafor’s sentence 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.

Meanwhile, a circuit judge granted Jackson’s 2017 request for a new sentencing proceeding after the 2016 Supreme Court ruling, which was in a case known as Hurst v. State. Prosecutors did not appeal the decision at the time, but Moody’s office in February went to the Supreme Court to try to get the death sentence reinstated.

After the Supreme Court rejected the requests Wednesday, Pete Mills, chair of the Death Penalty Steering Committee of the Florida Public Defender Association, said the “decisions boiled down to issues involving timing and finality.”

In Jackson, death sentences were vacated or set aside by the trial court and the state never appealed that final order. Because of the Florida Supreme Court’s rules, the state is time-barred from attempting to overturn the decision now,” Mills, an assistant public defender in the 10th Judicial Circuit, said in an email. “The time limits apply to both the defense and the state. The state’s time to appeal expired long ago.”

Mills and Maria DeLiberato, an attorney who represented Jackson at the Supreme Court, said the opinions could affect about 100 cases that involve resentencing.

Wednesday’s opinions were rooted in a series of major death-penalty developments that began in early 2016 when the U.S. Supreme Court found Florida’s death-penalty system 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 Hurst v. State decision, interpreted and applied the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The state court 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.

The state Supreme Court subsequently said its decision in Hurst v. State should be applied retroactively to cases going back to 2002. That created a need to hold new sentencing hearings for many inmates in death-penalty cases.

In the meantime, the Legislature also changed state laws to essentially comply with the U.S. Supreme ruling, including requiring unanimous jury recommendations before death sentences are imposed.

The state Supreme Court, however, has issued a series of decisions this year --- including the January decision to back away from Hurst v. State --- that have undone earlier criminal and death-penalty rulings. Those changes came after the court became more conservative in 2019 following the retirements of longtime justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, who had been part of a generally liberal majority.

Okafor and Jackson could still face the death penalty when new sentencing hearings are held. The law passed to comply with the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling remains in effect, which means, in part, that unanimous jury recommendations would be needed before Okafor and Jackson could be sentenced to death.

“Under today’s decision, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Okafor and approximately 100 other individuals cannot be resentenced to death unless and until a jury renders a unanimous verdict,” DeLiberato said in a text message Wednesday. “While the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Poole (the January decision that backed away from Hurst v. State) stripped away important constitutional protections, the Court acknowledged today that the Legislature has recognized that Florida’s previous outlier status in allowing non-unanimous recommendations in death penalty cases will not continue.”

In the Okafor opinion, the Supreme Court said Moody’s office “argues that it is unreasonable and unjust to require the trial court to resentence Okafor now that Poole has removed the constitutional basis” for vacating Okafor’s original death sentence.

“We acknowledge the force of the state’s argument,” the opinion said. “Most importantly, we appreciate the substantial burden that resentencing will place on the victims of Okafor’s crimes. And we realize that resentencing in a capital case is time-consuming and costly, all at the public’s expense. These considerations, however compelling, do not give us license to exceed the legal constraints on our authority.”


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