Court clears way for prosecutors in death penalty cases

Amid continuing legal questions about Florida's death-penalty system, a state appeals court Wednesday rejected lower-court rulings that blocked prosecutors from seeking death sentences in four murder cases.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal sided with Attorney General Pam Bondi's office in the cases from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, where circuit judges pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in barring prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty.

The Jan. 12 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, found that Florida's death-penalty sentencing system was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries, in deciding whether defendants should be executed.

After the Hurst decision, state lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott hurried to revamp the sentencing system. But the Florida Supreme Court continues to ponder a series of cases that raise questions about how the Hurst decision should be applied --- and its potential legal fallout.

In the four Hillsborough and Pinellas cases, defendants were accused of committing murders between 2011 and 2015. The indictments came before the Hurst decision, though the defendants had not gone to trial.

After the Hurst decision, two of the defendants asked circuit judges to prevent their trials from moving forward as death-penalty cases --- requests granted by the judges, according to Wednesday's appeals-court ruling. In the other two cases, the defendants sought to plead guilty in exchange for guarantees they would be sentenced to life in prison. The circuit judges in those cases found that life in prison was the only available sentence because of the Hurst decision, despite objections from prosecutors.

Bondi's office took the issues to the appeals court, which consolidated the four cases. In a nine-page ruling, a three-judge panel of the appeals court said the Hurst decision does not prevent prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.

"The (U.S. Supreme) Court did not strike down the death penalty itself. ... It likewise did not strike down (part of state law establishing first-degree murder as a capital offense) or otherwise reduce first-degree murder to a non-capital offense," said the ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Anthony Black and joined by judges Daniel Sleet and Samuel Salario. "Nor did the Hurst ruling render the guilt phase requirements of capital cases unconstitutional. The (U.S. Supreme) Court found unconstitutional only the penalty phase procedures applicable to capital cases. Hurst simply has no impact on the state's executive decision to prosecute capital offenses."

The appeals court also took issue with the fact that the circuit judges made the death-penalty decisions before the defendants had been to trial.

"The lack of a penalty phase procedure before the penalty is at issue --- during the guilt phase and pretrial when the respondents are before the courts awaiting trial or conviction based on acceptance of a plea --- does not preclude the state from charging the respondents with capital offenses and prosecuting the cases as capital cases," the appeals court said. "The trial courts simply have no authority to determine the applicability of the death penalty to defendants who have not been convicted of capital felonies."

The appeals court did not describe details of the underlying murder cases, which involve defendants Carlos Benito Jones and Steven Cecil Dykes in Pinellas County and Charles Anthony Foster and Carlos Ruben Rivas in Hillsborough County.

But the Tampa Bay Times reported Jan. 25 that Dykes had been accused of fatally shaking and striking his infant daughter in February 2015. In rejecting prosecutors' attempt to seek the death penalty against Dykes, Pinellas County Circuit Judge Michael Andrews wrote that he concluded "there currently exists no death penalty in the State of Florida in that there is no procedure in place," the Times reported.

The newspaper reported in February that Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Samantha Ward had reached a similar conclusion in the case of Rivas, who was accused of killing a homeless man in 2012 in Tampa.


Information taken from The News Service of Florida.