In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court found laws mandating juveniles be sentenced to life in prison without parole are cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling appears to be in conflict with Florida law and judges are caught in the middle said J.D. Moorehead, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law.
Florida law requires Life in Prison without the possibility of parole for everyone convicted of first-degree murder who aren’t sentenced to death and that applies to juveniles who are tried as adults. While Florida law appears to be in conflict with the Supreme Court, state appellate judges also are in conflict with each other. The 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami found that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was not retroactive but the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee has found just the opposite. Some of the lawyers of these teens sentenced to life have not yet asked for a re-sentencing hearing because they are waiting for the Florida Supreme Court to break the tie between the District Courts of Appeal on determining if the ruling is retroactive. The Attorney General’s (AG) office argues that the original decision of the appeals court makes it unclear how the re-sentencing should occur and that there is no clear ruling for the trial court to follow upon reversal of the sentence. The AG is of the opinion that the U.S. Supreme Court has, perhaps unintentionally, created an impossible situation for the trial court without any permissible remedy. However, only in states like Florida, where there is no parole, does this ruling create a slippery slope.
The AG’s office has suggested going back to the pre-1994 sentencing rules as a temporary fix to the situation according to John Lucas, spokesman for AG Pam Bondi. But judges aren’t waiting and in February 2013 Circuit Judge Thomas Beverly re-sentenced a 16-year old convicted of murder to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. The State Attorney’s office was supportive of the re-sentencing despite the legal uncertainty.
The Florida legislature needs to step in and change the laws so they no longer conflict with the Supreme Court ruling and Sen. Rob Bradley (R) Fleming Island is planning to introduce a bill that would bring Florida into compliance with the Supreme Court. Rep. Perry Thurston (D) Plantation said the Supreme Court has made it clear that minors shouldn’t automatically be sentenced for the rest of their lives. David Utter, policy and legislative director for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Florida says that we seem to be moving toward a Supreme Court ruling that children cannot be tried in the adult system for any reason. He thinks the court is realizing that locking up juveniles for life just doesn’t make sense especially when medical science shows that adolescent brains are still developing. Assistant public defender, Greg Messore, Jacksonville, said that the Supreme court ruling recognizes the challenge of prosecuting minors. He feels these cases should not be painted with a broad brush.
Ref: Article by Larry Hannan, Florida Times Union, (904) 359-4470, (firstname.lastname@example.org)