Rulings Across Florida Applying SB 450

October 26, 2023 Criminal Defense

Only four months after Florida’s new death penalty legislation was signed into law, court districts  across the state are having to choose whether they believe the new statute applies to certain capital cases.

To provide some context: The 2016 Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida found that the State’s process for the death penalty was unconstitutional. Later in October 2016, the case Hurst v. State interpreted the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling by stating that the jury required a unanimous recommendation for the death penalty. The unanimous jury requirement was established into law by the Florida Legislature in 2017.

However, since Governor Ron DeSantis signed SB 450 allowing a majority jury recommendation for death, it left nearly five-dozen Hurst resentencing cases in limbo, that were already pending. This is where this blog post begins—multiple Florida jurisdictions are reviewing death row cases to decide if the majority jury recommendation applies for their case.

While some argue that applying the new statute violates the ex post facto clause, others claim that trials starting after April 20 should implement SB 450, since the law passed prior to the procedure beginning.

This page will provide information on SB 450 and how several districts have taken to the new statute, along with information on the Bryan Riley case and ex post facto.

What is Sb 450?

Florida has updated its law regarding capital punishment in the Senate Bill 450 titled “Death Penalty.” The bill passed legislation and was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on April 20, 2023.

The biggest change made in SB 450 is that the law no longer requires a jury to unanimously vote in favor of the death penalty for capital cases. Meaning when a defendant is on trial for a capital offense, they face either life in prison without parole or execution by lethal injection.

Previously, the law required the jury to first convict the defendant in the guilt phase, then they had to vote in favor of capital punishment. The jury had to come to a unanimous 12-0 vote for the trial to proceed to the sentencing phase.

Now, Florida Statute Section 921.141 has been amended to only require a majority vote—meaning an 8-4 jury vote in favor of execution for the case to then move forward for the judge’s sentence. During sentencing, the judge can only override a death sentence and give a life sentence instead. The judge cannot give a death sentence if the jury did not give a majority vote (8-4) deciding in favor of execution.

To find out more about SB 450, read our blog post here.

Rulings Across Florida Courts

The following provides a list of courts across Florida and their rulings since SB 450’s passing:

  • Broward County – Ruled that the 8-4 statute applied to two cases. Rapper YNW Melly’s case, which ended in a mistrial. It was also applied to the Clarck Paul case, which you can read more about in our blog post here.
  • Duval County – Ruled that the 8-4 statute applies to Michael Jackson’s Hurst The jury voted 8-4 in favor of the death penalty, meaning it proceeds to the sentencing by the judge.
  • Escambia County – Ruled that the 8-4 statute applies to Leonard Gonzalez’s Hurst Initially, Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office requesting that justices weigh in on the issue of SB 450 and its “retroactivity.” Only weeks later, another lawyer with Moody’s office filed a motion for the Supreme Court to dismiss the case, claiming that the defendant’s appeal raised issues, “best addressed in a post-trial direct appeal.” The case remains pending.
  • Highlands County – Ruled that the 8-4 statute applies to the Zephen Xaver case, denying the defendant’s motion claiming a violation of the ex post facto clause. Since Xaver pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree murder for the offenses committed in 2019, his trial will proceed with only the penalty phase, which is set to begin January 2024.
  • Lee County – Ruled that the 8-4 statute applied to the Joseph Zieler case. The jury voted 10-2 in favor of capital punishment. Zieler has since been sent to death row until his scheduled execution. Zieler maintains his innocence and claims the decision will be overturned.
  • Miami-Dade County – Ruled that the 8-4 statute applied to the Robert Holton case. However the judge ruled a mistrial after the jury could not come to an agreement during deliberations.
  • Nassau County – Decided to reschedule the penalty phase for Patrick McDowell case to April 2024, pending the Florida Supreme Court’s opinion of the new capital sentencing statute.
  • Polk County – A 10th Circuit Judge presiding over two cases ruled that the 8-4 statute would violate the ex post facto clause. The following is a statement from the Court’s Order regarding the change in statute:

“It takes no empirical evidence, but only a reasonable measure of practical wisdom, to agree that the prospect of persuading 8 members, as compared to every last member, of a 12-member jury to return a death recommendation is significantly (if not substantially) more likely.”

We will provide more information on the ex post facto law and the Polk County case of Bryan Riley further below.

  • Volusia County – Ruled that the 8-4 statute does not apply to the Hurst resentencing of Hunter and Victorino. The Fifth District Court of Appeals granted the State’s petition and directed that the 8-4 would apply. The proceedings for resentencing are still pending. You can read more about the trial court’s ruling here. You can read more about the Fifth District’s Order here. You can read more on the case’s mistrial here.
  • Wakulla County – Ruled that the 8-4 statute applies to the Hurst resentencing procedures for both Guerry Hertz and Jason Looney. Both filed petitions for writ of prohibition through the Florida Supreme Court to ask for relief from the ruling. The petition from Hertz was dismissed, and Looney’s is still pending. The State filed a Motion to Dismiss, which is also pending.

The Bryan Riley Case

Not every defendant is facing the new sentencing requirements under SB 450. In the case of Bryan Riley, a Florida judge has ruled that the jury in the quadruple murder trial must come to a unanimous decision to recommend the death penalty.

Riley was arrested after a seemingly random shooting of a North Lakeland family, including their three-month-old son. He also shot an 11-year-old victim seven times in the stomach, but she survived.

Defendant Riley had no criminal history but had previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is facing four counts of first-degree murder. His defense attorney plans to use the insanity defense, as Riley was claiming he had been “sent by God” to prevent the suicide of a girl named Amber.

At the time of the offense, Florida law still required a unanimous jury vote to sentence a defendant to execution. Yet the State Attorney’s Office filed a motion to apply SB 450 if Riley is found guilty of the first-degree murder charges.

“[The new law] is in effect now because the effective date was April 20th of 2023,” said Assistant State Attorney Lauren Perry. “We have not had trial. We have not had the sentencing. Therefore, the law that is currently in place when the sentencing takes place is what should apply.”

Yet the defense argued that the new law shouldn’t be applied ‘retroactively.’ The following is a statement from Riley’s defense counsel, Jane McNeill:

“If the legislature had intended that this law, Senate Bill 450, applied retroactively, that cases currently pending should not be subject to the 8-4 vote for death, opposed to the 12-0 vote for death, it would have said so. That is not what it said. It is very clear that the new 8-4 vote does not apply to Riley’s case.”

The response from 10th Circuit Judge Kevin Abdoney addressed that the trial must come to a unanimous decision for the recommendation of death if Riley is found guilty. Abdoney’s ruling cited the Constitutional prohibition of “ex post facto clause,” which is codified under Article 1, Section 9, Clause 3:

“[The prohibition of ex post facto laws seeks] to assure that legislative Acts give fair warning of their effect and permit individuals to rely on their meaning until explicitly changed, [and] restricts governmental power by restraining arbitrary and potentially vindictive legislation.”

Robin Maher, with the Death Penalty Information Center, addressed how lawmakers prohibit ex post facto laws to ensure defendants have a fair warning of the laws that will apply to them. She explained how legislators should be prevented from passing laws just to punish people, especially when the punishment is greater than what they would have received at the time of the alleged offense.

The State argued there is no risk of violating the ex post facto law since there is not a significant risk that Riley would receiver a greater risk of the death penalty nor more onerous sentence. However, Maher argued that Florida has a history of court cases showing, “[the legislators] were trying to increase the possibility that more people would be sentenced to death by lowering the threshold.”

Assistant State Attorney Jacob Orr responded to Judge Abdoney’s ruling, “We are appealing that order.”

Contact a Tallahassee Criminal Defense Lawyer

While SB 450 only applies to capital cases, it is important for any person facing criminal prosecution to consider working with a defense attorney. It is understandably stressful to be charged with a crime. You can get ahead of your case by hiring an experienced attorney who can provide insight and guidance on how to fight the charges against you.

At Pumphrey Law Firm, our attorneys are prepared to fight in your corner. We can review your case details in a free consultation when you call (850) 681-7777 or leave us a message through our website.

Written by Karissa Key

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