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Court weighs if Tampa rapper’s jury should be unanimous on death penalty

State law now allows death by a jury vote of 8-4. Courts disagree whether the new law can apply to pending cases.
 
Billy Adams III appears in a Hillsborough courtroom in February after he was accused of fatally shooting 22-year-old Alana Sims, who was pregnant.
Billy Adams III appears in a Hillsborough courtroom in February after he was accused of fatally shooting 22-year-old Alana Sims, who was pregnant. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Nov. 27, 2023

TAMPA — If Billy Adams III is found guilty of murder, should Hillsborough prosecutors have to convince 12 people that he deserves the death penalty? Or will eight be enough?

A judge is weighing that question as lawyers and other Florida judges also grapple with what to do in the wake of the latest change to the state’s ever-evolving death penalty system.

This spring, the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a law that eliminated the requirement that juries be unanimous if they are to recommend the death penalty. The new minimum threshold is a vote of 8-4. Thus, even if four jurors vote for life in prison, a court can still impose capital punishment.

But the question lingers: What to do with defendants, like Adams, whose cases were pending when the law changed? Should they be subject to the new 8-4 rule?

Lawyers for Adams argued in a court hearing last week that the change would amount to an ex post facto law — a law that applies retroactively — which is explicitly prohibited in the U.S. and Florida constitutions.

Assistant Public Defender Jamie Kane told a judge that the new law creates new pressure for the defense. Under the previous law, the defense only had to convince one juror that a life sentence was appropriate. Under the new law, they have to convince at least five.

Related: Florida death penalty changes causing ‘chaos,’ attorneys say

“That is a big difference,” Kane said. “Our burden has increased dramatically.”

Hillsborough prosecutors responded that the new 8-4 standard was merely a procedural change in the law, and therefore it should apply to cases going forward, including Adams’.

“Does this retroactively increase punishment for this crime?” Assistant State Attorney Lindsay Hodges said in the hearing. “The answer is no. ... The punishment is still death.”

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Mark Kiser did not immediately rule on the issue.

Florida for years was one of the only states in which the law did not require juries to be unanimous if they were to impose the death penalty. A bare majority of 7-5 for death was all it took.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty as unconstitutional. Thereafter, unanimity became the rule.

Last year, though, outrage was widespread after a Broward County jury fell three votes short of recommending a death sentence for Nikolas Cruz, who shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

In direct response to that came the push to lower the standard to 8-4.

The change has affected cases all across the state. One notable example is that of Troy Victorino and Jerone Hunter. The codefendants were sentenced to death in 2006 in Volusia County — when the law required only seven jurors to vote for death. Their sentences were overturned after the state’s death penalty was struck down. Lawyers were in the middle of a new penalty trial for the pair last spring when the law shifted back to 8-4, ultimately halting the proceedings.

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An appeals court later ruled that the case should be subject to the new 8-4 rule. But that hasn’t settled the question.

In July, a Polk County judge ruled that applying the new law to a pending case there would be unconstitutional.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Lyann Goudie cited the Polk County ruling in October when she similarly ruled against applying the 8-4 law in the case of McKinsie Lyons.

Lyons is charged in a 2018 Ruskin home invasion robbery in which a man and a pregnant woman were killed. Facing death, he was weeks away from going to trial earlier this year when the law changed. The trial was postponed.

In the Lyons case, like in Adams’, prosecutors argued that the new law was a mere procedural change. Goudie rejected that argument.

In a written opinion, Goudie reasoned that the new law made a life sentence less likely. The change was a substantive one, the judge wrote, as it put Lyons at greater risk of a death sentence.

“What if the Legislature amended (the law) to allow a death recommendation if at least six jurors determine a defendant should be sentenced to death?” Goudie wrote. “Five jurors? Four jurors? Three jurors? Two jurors? ... It would be ludicrous to argue that such a change would not substantially increase both the number of death recommendations and death sentences.”

Adams’ defense echoed Goudie’s opinion in arguments before Judge Kiser.

“The effort here by the Legislature is to have more people get the death penalty,” Kane said. “How do you do that? By reducing the state’s burden and increasing the defense burden. The fewer (jurors) they have to convince, the more they’re going to win death sentences.”

The issue is one that the Florida Supreme Court will likely have to decide. The outcome could affect what happens in at least eight pending Hillsborough County death penalty cases, including Adams’.

Adams, 26, is accused in the January shooting of 22-year-old Alana Sims, who was found dead on a roadside beside the SUV she was driving in a New Tampa subdivision. Her toddler son sat unharmed inside the vehicle. Sims was pregnant when she died. At least one witness told police that Adams was believed to be the father of the unborn child, according to court records.

The killing occurred three days after Adams, a hip-hop artist known as Ace NH, was found not guilty in the fatal shootings of Trevon Albury and Daniel Thompson inside a Lutz recording studio. In his trial in that case, Adams testified that he’d killed the pair in self-defense because he believed they were about to rob the studio’s owner.

Less than two weeks after he walked out of court, Adams was back in jail, accused of killing Sims.

Handcuffed and clad in a red jail uniform, he sat in a jury box throughout last week’s hearing. He leaned forward and gazed at his attorney, appearing keenly interested in the arguments over his potential fate.