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Federal judge strikes narrow part of death penalty process

A Miami federal judge ruled Wednesday that the way Florida courts mete out the death penalty is unconstitutional because juries — not judges — should be the ones to spell out which details about the crime justify execution.

U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez ordered Paul H. Evans, convicted in a 1991 murder-for-hire case in Vero Beach, to receive a new sentencing hearing.

The ruling, likely to be argued in appellate courts for years, does not strike down Florida's capital punishment law. But it could force lawmakers to change the statute, and could give recent convicts new avenues for appeal, legal experts say.

"If the case survives appeals, the Florida Legislature is going to have to modify the law to allow jurors to explain why someone deserves the death penalty," said Miami attorney Terry Lenamon, founder of the Florida Capital Resource Center, a support group for death penalty defense cases.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, through a spokeswoman, said Wednesday that her office will seek a re-hearing and will appeal the decision.

Legal scholars say Martinez's ruling marks the first time a Florida judge has overturned a death sentence under the U.S. Supreme Court case Ring vs. Arizona. In that 2002 ruling, the court held that defendants are entitled to have juries decide on whether any "aggravating factors" in a crime justify enhanced punishment.

Evans was convicted in the 1991 murder of Alan Pfeiffer. Jurors voted 9-3 for the death penalty in February 1999. The trial judge imposed death, finding that Evans committed the crime for "pecuniary gain," and the murder was "committed in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner."

Whether any convicts will be resentenced because of Martinez's ruling remains to be seen, but the opinion has reignited debate in the Florida legal community over the jury's role in deciding on the death penalty.

Florida is one of the few states that allow juries to issue death penalty recommendations that are not unanimous. Here, 12-person juries recommend by majority vote whether someone convicted of first-degree murder should be executed. But state jurors do not have to check off on an instruction sheet which reasons contributed to their decision, as jurors are required to do in the rare death penalty case in federal court.

Trial judges in Florida's state courts have authority to override jury recommendations, although in death penalty cases, they rarely do.

Judge Martinez, in Wednesday's ruling, said there was no way to know if all nine of the jurors in Evans' case who voted for death were swayed by the same aggravating factors as the judge. He conceded that jury unanimity may not be constitutionally necessary, but wrote: "… It cannot be that Mr. Evans' death sentence is constitutional when there is no evidence to suggest that even a simple majority found the existence of any one aggravating circumstance."

Legal experts say it is unclear how far-reaching Martinez's ruling will be. The U.S. Supreme Court has already upheld the right of judges to act independently of juries in finding a defendant's other violent felonies as an aggravating factor in enhancing a sentence. That means the ruling won't affect the many cases of death row inmates who have violent pasts or were convicted of murder with other violent felonies.

Fort Lauderdale capital litigation appellate attorney Melissa Minsk Donoho said that Martinez's ruling will have limited impact, but could force the Florida Supreme Court to change jury instructions to include requiring them to rule on the specific aggravators. She said that nevertheless, recently convicted defendants — nearly 30 have been sentenced to death since the 2002 Ring decision — will use Wednesday's ruling as part of an appeal.

Retired senior Miami-Dade prosecutor David Waksman said he did not think the ruling would affect many cases. "The death penalty law is 40 years old, and a lot of defendants have gone through federal courts without winning an appeal on this issue," Waksman said. "The judges in death penalty cases just say there are sufficient facts to support what the jury recommended."

Federal judge strikes narrow part of death penalty process 06/22/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 11:17pm]
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