Florida High Court Affirms Death Sentence

The defendant in this case was convicted for the first-degree murder of a correctional officer while he was an inmate in a correctional institution. He was sentenced to the death penalty. This appeal was based on a case that was decided after the defendant was convicted. In a case called Hurst, it was found unconstitutional for defendants to be sentenced to death when the sentence is not reached by a unanimous jury verdict. It also addressed the use of aggravating factors. This case relies on that precedent to argue that the defendant here should also not be sentenced to death.

Aggravating Factors

Florida death penalty laws are somewhat complicated. As part of the decision to penalize someone with death, the jury must consider certain aggravating and mitigating factors. Obviously, aggravating factors weigh toward a sentence of death and mitigating factors do not. Here, the court gave five different aggravating factors great or very great weight. They were: that the defendant was convicted of a felony before, and the felony involved violence, the crime was intended to disrupt a lawful governmental function, it was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, and it was cold, calculated, and premeditated. Conversely, the court found no statutory mitigating factors and eight non-statutory mitigating factors that were given little to some weight.

Defendant’s Argument

The defendant in this case argued that another case called Wood to argue that the sentence of death should be vacated. In Wood, two of the three aggravating factors that were cited by the jury were later stricken, and so the death penalty verdict was vacated as without those factors the sentence would not meet the requirements set by Hurst.

Here, one of the aggravating factors was stricken in an earlier appeal by this defendant. Of the five aggravating factors that were found by the jury listed above, the “cold, calculated, and premeditated” factor was stricken. The court here found that this was distinguishable from Wood because this defendant still had four great or very great weight aggravating factors present. Thus, the court here found that Wood was not applicable.

Harmful Error

Under Hurst if there are some parts of the original case that are no longer permissible, then the court will look at whether the error was harmless or harmful. An error is harmless if it is unlikely to have influenced the trier of fact to come to their conclusions.

The biggest difference between the instant case and Wood is that in that case, the error was seen as harmful. Here, the Florida Supreme Court held that the errors were harmless and thus the death penalty should stand. They looked at the fact that the jury unanimously recommended the death penalty, and that even with the stricken aggravating factor was only a small part of the rationale for the death penalty.

Contact an Experienced St. Petersburg Criminal Defense Attorney Today!

Criminal charges are a very serious matter, especially if the death penalty is on the table. Luckily, there are many laws in place that help to protect criminal defendants from being penalized with the death penalty except in certain cases. The experienced St. Petersburg criminal defense attorneys at Hanlon Law Firm can look at your case and see whether there were any errors that may result in your conviction or sentence being thrown out or reduced. Call our offices at (727) 897-5413 or contact us online to speak with our attorneys about your case as soon as possible.

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