TAMPA — Florida legal authorities do not agree on whether juveniles can be sentenced to life in prison without parole. The Florida Supreme court has not weighed in, and state legislators have not passed any laws to clear the matter.
And though one Florida district court of appeal said such a sentence is unconstitutional, that particular court does not cover Tampa.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Emmett Lamar Battles faced these muddy legal waters at a hearing Friday and ultimately decided to uphold the sentence of a Tampa man handed life in prison for a murder he committed at age 16.
Amer Ejak, now 20, was found guilty of first-degree murder in July. Prosecutors said he clubbed and strangled a man in 2009, then showed off the victim's body to friends. On Sept. 3, Battles sentenced Ejak to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Ejak's attorney recently filed a motion for "corrected sentence" — a request that arose from a legal issue that lingers in Florida after last year's landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller vs. Alabama, which stated that mandatory life imprisonment for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional.
Life sentences can still be handed down if deemed appropriate, but judges must at least have the option of a more lenient sentence. The problem in Florida is that state law permits only two punishments for anyone convicted of first-degree murder — death or life in prison without parole.
As a result, lawyers and judges across the state are struggling with a dilemma: Florida has no constitutional sentencing laws on the books for people under the age of 18 who commit first-degree murder. State legislators started working a year ago to change Florida law but ultimately did not pass a bill.
Judge Battles acknowledged Friday that his options are limited. He can't make any decisions that essentially rewrite state law. And the higher courts that could guide him — the Florida Supreme Court and 2nd District Court of Appeal — have not weighed in.
He tactfully urged Florida lawmakers to address the issue next session.
Both Battles and each side's lawyers considered the multiple opinions by Florida appellate courts since the Miller ruling. Two district courts agreed that a judge can sentence a juvenile to life without parole but did so weakly, without saying they were providing guidance to all.
The most decisive decision was expressed in August by the 5th District Court of Appeal, which covers Central Florida along the Interstate 4 corridor east of Tampa and parts of the North Suncoast, including Hernando County.
The court's opinion stated that the "only sentence now available in Florida for a charge of capital murder committed by a juvenile is life with the possibility of parole after 25 years."
But on Friday, Battles agreed with the prosecutor, stating that district's decision is only "persuasive and not controlling" since the court does not cover Tampa.
"We are going to need guidance, and maybe it's cases like this … that will help the (Florida) Supreme Court, the district court and the Legislature, as they go about addressing this matter," Battles said.
Times staff writer Peter Jamison contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.