By reinstating the original sentence of life in prison without parole for Nicholas Lindsey on Friday, a Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court judge entered muddy legal waters. Lindsey and other juveniles convicted of murder continue to be sentenced under a state statute that is now unconstitutional as applied to them. There is no clear road map for judges, because the Florida Legislature has failed to bring state law into conformance with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Lindsey's reconsidered sentence for shooting and killing a St. Petersburg police officer will likely be challenged, wasting resources and prolonging the pain for the victim's family. Had the Legislature acted responsibly, the courts would not be operating in the dark and creating law as they go.
State courts are puzzling through what to do with juveniles who were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced under state law that provides for a death sentence or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Minors cannot be sentenced to death because of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Last year, the court ruled that a life sentence without parole cannot be mandatory for juvenile offenders — people who committed their crime before reaching 18 years old. The court said that in light of a young person's lack of maturity and capacity to change as he grows up, courts must be permitted to take these circumstances into account in sentencing. Florida law gives judges no discretion to impose a lesser sentence.
Lindsey received a life sentence without parole for killing St. Petersburg police Officer David Crawford in 2011 by shooting him five times after the officer stopped to question him about a burglary. At the time Lindsey was 16 years old. In imposing the same sentence again, Circuit Judge Thane B. Covert wrote that the "deliberate, senseless, and callous nature" of the murder outweighs any youthful considerations. It isn't clear whether this is enough to satisfy the Supreme Court's requirements.
Other circuit court judges have ruled inconsistently. A judge in Hillsborough County recently resentenced Amer Ejak, now 20 years old, to life without parole for clubbing and strangling a man in 2009 — the same sentence Ejak originally received. But compare that to a teen murderer in Pasco County who was sentenced last month to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years, even though state law makes no provision for it.
An August ruling by the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach said that the only legal sentence for juveniles guilty of capital murder is life with the possibility of parole after 25 years, but that decision is only controlling precedent for part of the state.
The Florida Legislature surely knew that by not rewriting state law to reflect the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and giving judges the opportunity to impose lesser sentences it would cause confusion and result in disparate treatment of juvenile offenders across the state. Lawmakers shifted their responsibility to the courts. The Florida Supreme Court will have to bring clarity to the law. In the meantime, trial courts faced with resentencing some of Florida's more than 200 inmates who were convicted and sentenced on murder charges should follow the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling as best they can.