State Supreme Court Won't Reinstate Vacated Death Sentences

A 2016 ruling known as Hurst required unanimous juries and led the justices to vacate more than 100 death sentences in Florida

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The Florida Supreme Court ruled Wednesday it cannot reinstate death sentences for two convicted killers who previously had those sentences vacated by the justices in a ruling that could ultimately affect dozens of cases.

Instead, the justices determined that new sentencing hearings must be held for this pair of inmates. They are among more than 100 murderers who had death sentences vacated over the issue of whether juries had to unanimously recommend capital punishment.

“We realize that resentencing in a capital case is time-consuming and costly, all at the public’s expense. These considerations, however compelling, do not give us license to exceed the legal constraints on our authority,” the court ruled in one of the cases.

The decisions are the latest twist in the Florida Supreme Court's effort to decide whether juries must unanimously recommend death sentences. A 2016 ruling known as Hurst required unanimous juries and led the justices to vacate more than 100 death sentences in Florida.

Then came a ruling in January, known as Poole, that juries did not have to be unanimous in capital punishment cases after all. By then, the Supreme Court had new justices with more conservative legal views.

That led prosecutors around the state to ask the Supreme Court to reinstate death sentences that had been vacated over the unanimous jury issue. The court, in its ruling Wednesday, rejected that idea.

One case was that of Michael James Jackson, who was convicted in Duval County of kidnapping, robbing and burying alive Carol and Reggie Sumner, who were both 61 and disabled, in 2005.

Jackson's new sentencing hearing had been set to begin in February but was put on hold pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case. Prosecutors also had wanted that hearing canceled.

“Jackson’s vacated death sentences cannot be retroactively reinstated,” the court ruled. “To the extent the state seeks to permanently halt the resentencing, that would leave Jackson without a sentence for the two murders.”

The other case decided Wednesday involved Bessman Okafor, who was convicted in the 2012 slaying in Orange County of Alex Zaldivar, 19, during a home-invasion robbery. His new sentencing hearing had been set for March after the original death penalty was vacated.

Now the Supreme Court has ruled Okafor must have that hearing before a lower trial court — and so might dozens of other killers who had death sentences vacated under the Hurst decision.

“In reaching this conclusion, we acknowledge the burden that resentencing proceedings will place on the victims of Okafor’s crimes. We also acknowledge the consequences for the victims in similar cases that will be governed by our decision here,” the justices ruled. “Nonetheless, our holding is compelled by applicable law.”

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