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  1. Florida Politics

Dozens of Florida death row inmates expected to challenge sentences

Khadafy Mullens pleaded guilty to killing a store owner and a customer during a 2008 robbery of a food mart near St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field, a crime captured on the store's video surveillance camera. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times (2013)]
Khadafy Mullens pleaded guilty to killing a store owner and a customer during a 2008 robbery of a food mart near St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field, a crime captured on the store's video surveillance camera. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times (2013)]
Published Feb. 5, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — They live on death row, convicted of some of the worst crimes in Florida.

A Miami man stabbed an elderly woman 58 times in her Little Havana apartment. A Broward teenage gang member randomly executed a man walking down the street in a "body count contest." A Pasco County lawn man raped and murdered a woman who was 94 years old.

They are among dozens of condemned inmates whose sentences could be reduced to life without parole or who could get new sentencing hearings in the first wave of legal challenges to a Florida death penalty sentencing system struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court ruled on Jan. 12 that Florida's system is unconstitutional because it does not require juries to make all findings of fact necessary to impose a death sentence. That means Florida is violating a defendant's right to a trial by jury.

The Supreme Court's decision involved Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of killing a co-worker at a Pensacola fast-food restaurant in 1998.

Hurst sits in his 6- by 9-foot cell at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, waiting for the Florida Supreme Court to review his case as ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

He's not alone. Death penalty experts and Attorney General Pam Bondi say that as many as 43 death row inmates could get life sentences without parole or new sentencing hearings.

It's partly a matter of timing.

Those 43 inmates have filed limited challenges to their death sentences known as direct appeals, which have not yet been acted upon by the Florida Supreme Court. Justices must now apply the Hurst decision to those cases.

"It's sort of a given that these people get the benefit of Hurst," said Martin McClain, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who represents death row inmates in their appeals. "The question will be whether it leads to a life sentence or a new sentencing."

Those 43 cases in the post-Hurst pipeline involve some of Florida's most horrific crimes of the past two decades. They include:

• Khadafy Mullens, who pleaded guilty to killing a store owner and a customer during a 2008 robbery of a food mart near St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field, a crime captured on the store's video surveillance camera.

• Victor Guzman, convicted of the murder of an 80-year-old Miami woman who was found with 58 stab wounds.

• John Sexton, a Pasco County yard maintenance man convicted of the 2010 rape and murder of a 94-year-old woman, a crime that the sheriff called pure evil. The victim's daughter said that short of Sexton experiencing the pain that her mother did, "the next best solution is to condemn you to death."

• James Herard, a gang member, was convicted of participating in the 2008 execution of Eric Jean-Pierre, 39, who was gunned down in Lauderhill on his way home from work.

Florida has 389 inmates on death row, second only to California. The state's death penalty is experiencing its greatest turmoil since it was reinstituted four decades ago.

The Hurst case is expected to unleash a flood of new appeals and is forcing a conservative, pro-death penalty Legislature to hurriedly rewrite the law so that executions can resume.

As lawmakers craft a new law, the state's highest court agreed Tuesday to indefinitely postpone the scheduled Feb. 11 execution of Michael Lambrix. He has been on death row since 1984 after being convicted of two murders in Glades County.

Lambrix's case is much older than most death penalty cases, and a legal question is whether the Hurst decision can be applied retroactively to him. The court's decision to stop his execution is seen as an indication that justices want to analyze the impact of the Hurst decision.

In the cases of Lambrix and his other clients, McClain wants the state court to change every death sentence to life without parole, which Bondi opposes.

In case after case this week, Bondi's legal experts argued that those original death sentences must be carried out. The marathon legal battles are just beginning as more cases will appear on the court's argument docket in coming months.

"Finality sometimes has to trump fairness," Assistant Attorney General Carol Dittmar told the justices Thursday. "The citizens of this state, and certainly the families of these victims, need to have confidence that when a sentence is final, it will only be disturbed if there's a tremendously important reason to do so."

Dittmar made that argument in opposing a lifting of the death sentence of Michael King of Sarasota, who was convicted of the abduction, rape and murder of Denise Lee, a mother of two children, in North Port in 2008.

The court had denied King's direct appeal, but his attorneys want it reviewed.

Asked about the state's repeated reference to victims' families, McClain said in an interview that the Hurst case is about defendants — not victims.

"Hurst is about the rights of capital defendants as to their constitutional rights," McClain said. "The impact on the victims is irrelevant."

In Lambrix's case, he said, all the Florida Supreme Court has to do is change his sentence to life imprisonment without parole.

McClain will make a similar legal argument when he seeks to block the scheduled March execution of Mark James Asay, who was sentenced to die after being convicted of two murders in Jacksonville in 1987.

"Certainly, Mr. Asay should be permitted to litigate any claims arising on the basis of Hurst vs. Florida, just as Mr. Lambrix has been permitted to do," McClain argued in court papers.

And in early March, McClain will tell the Supreme Court why it should lift the death sentence of Terrance Phillips, one of the 43 post-Hurst cases, convicted of ambushing and killing two people in their Jacksonville apartment on Christmas Eve 2009.

At 24, Phillips is the youngest inmate on Florida's death row.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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