TAMPA — A Tampa man sentenced to life in prison for a murder he committed at age 16 is asking a judge to reconsider his punishment, citing unresolved questions that are bedeviling Florida's legal system more than a year after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting the imprisonment of juveniles.
Amer Ejak, now 20, was found guilty of first-degree murder after a jury trial in July. Prosecutors said he clubbed and strangled a man in 2009, then showed off the victim's body to a group of friends. On Sept. 3, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Emmett Lamar Battles sentenced Ejak to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But Battles has scheduled a hearing this Friday to revisit that sentence. The hearing was prompted by a defense motion that highlighted the vexing legal issues that linger in Florida in the wake of the Supreme Court's much-watched ruling last year in the case Miller vs. Alabama.
In that ruling, the court found 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 men and women under the age of 18 who commit first-degree murder. State legislators made noises last summer about changing the statutes to pass constitutional muster, but failed to do so.
"Where do we stand? That's the question," said Nick Sinardi, Ejak's Tampa-based defense attorney. "We've got a little bit of a gap in the sentencing structure." Sinardi said a circuit court judge cannot simply go outside the boundaries of state law and improvise a fitting murder sentence.
"This court has no ability to determine what the Legislature would determine an appropriate sentence to be," Sinardi said, citing the separation of government powers. "This court can't be both the Legislature and judiciary."
Questions about how to comply with the Supreme Court's ruling have dogged another, higher-profile murder case in the Tampa Bay area. A Pinellas-Pasco Circuit judge is now weighing whether to reduce a life prison sentence for Nicholas Lindsey, who was convicted of gunning down a St. Petersburg police officer at the age of 16.
Similar concerns have also arisen in multiple opinions by Florida appellate courts since the Miller ruling. The most decisive view of the controversy 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.
Reviewing a Brevard County murder case, the appellate court decided that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision had turned back the clock on sentencing laws for juveniles to the last constitutional punishment for first-degree murder that existed in the state — a 1993 statute allowing life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
"We hold 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," Judge C. Alan Lawson wrote. The opinion concluded by asking the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in on the question "as a matter of great public importance."
Irene Sullivan, a former Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge, said the appellate court's decision is not binding for judges in Tampa or St. Petersburg. If the Florida Supreme Court agrees to take up the issue, however, it could provide what is now lacking — guidance on how to punish juvenile murderers throughout the state.
"It's kind of unsettled, with this appellate case, and it depends on what the (state) Supreme Court does," Sullivan said.
Peter Jamison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.