Pinellas judge rejects death penalty request after Supreme Court ruling

The Pinellas ruling comes after justices rule against Florida death sentences.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for a man accused of killing his 3-month-old daughter.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for a man accused of killing his 3-month-old daughter.
Published January 26 2016
Updated January 26 2016

LARGO — Days after the Supreme Court struck down the way Florida sentences people to die, a Pinellas County circuit judge has ruled that the death penalty cannot be pursued in a first-degree murder case scheduled for trial next month.

In an order filed Friday, judge Michael Andrews rejected prosecutors' notice that they intend to seek the death penalty in the case of a Pinellas Park father, Steven Dykes, accused of fatally shaking and striking his 3-month-old daughter in February of last year.

"This court concludes that there currently exists no death penalty in the State of Florida in that there is no procedure in place," Andrews wrote.

The order is the first of its kind in the state following the Hurst vs. Florida decision on Jan. 12, said Pinellas-Pasco public defender Bob Dillinger.

In an 8-1 opinion, the Supreme Court found Florida's death penalty procedures unconstitutional because juries play only an advisory role in recommending life or death. Judges make the ultimate decision after giving "great weight" to jurors' recommendations.

Florida, Alabama, and Delaware are the only states that don't require a unanimous jury verdict in death penalty cases. Each also allows a judge to override a jury's recommendation.

Dillinger, whose office is representing Dykes, said he agreed with Andrews' ruling.

"What the judge has done is absolutely correct," Dillinger said, adding Andrews is "right on point."

Prosecutors could file an appeal in the case. Another hearing is scheduled on Feb. 16, court records show, with the trial slated to begin Feb. 29.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said his office "respectfully" disagrees with judge Andrews, adding that the Hurst decision is not final yet. That will happen after the state asks for a rehearing. Bartlett also said the Legislature still has to create new sentencing guidelines in response to the court's decision.

"They issue an opinion and they don't issue any guidelines on how to fix it, and what to do next," Bartlett said of the Hurst opinion. "It's just a dilemma that faces us because the question is how exactly do you fix it? And they didn't really lay out how they thought it should be fixed, so it kind of lends you to, you know, potentially all kinds of challenges."

Lawmakers have previously said that they are making fixes to the death penalty sentencing system a priority this session.

"It's not the Supreme Court's job to lay out the procedural guidelines," said Charles Rose, a Stetson University law professor and the director of the Center for Excellence in Advocacy. "That's an issue for every legislature in every state to deal with independently."

The fate of other murder cases remains in flux until new sentencing guidelines are signed into law, said St. Petersburg criminal defense lawyer Marc Pelletier.

"Until the Legislature does its part," he said, "we're still going to be in a situation where everything's unclear."

Next month, the Florida Supreme Court also will hear oral arguments about whether Hurst vs. Florida should be applied retroactively to inmates currently on death row.

In the meantime, law experts across the state agreed with Andrews' order.

"The judge has it absolutely right," said Teresa Reid, a University of Florida Levin College of Law professor and assistant director of the Criminal Justice Center. "You need to have a statute in place regarding sentencing, and we don't have that right now."

She said that the judge's responsibility is to make sure the trial is fair and is conducted under law.

"It seems to me the appropriate thing to do is wait," she said. "We can't proceed when we don't have the procedure in place."

Rose, the Stetson law professor, said the decision "makes perfect sense."

"Judge Andrews should be commended for doing what the law requires," he said. "It's not only sound, it's courageous because he's the first to step out on the ledge on this issue."

Rose predicted that judges across the state would and should follow suit.

"My expectation is that there won't be any new death penalty cases tried," he said.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.

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