This week's Justin Heyne Case Demonstrates the Two Trials Involved in a Death Penalty Case

Yesterday, the jury came back in the murder trial of Justin Heyne.  The 12 jurors found Heyne guilty of the March 2006 murder of his roommates, Sarah Buckowski and Benjamin Hamilton and their 5-year-old daughter, Ivory. 

The verdict was read to a packed courtroom.  Mr. Heyne stood to hear his fate in a dark blue suit, his defense attorney at his side.  His family and the families of the victims all sat in the pews, witnessing the court clerk reading the jury's decision for each of the three crimes -- everyone hearing "guilty"  three times over.

That was the end of the first trial.

In every death penalty case, there are two trials.  Justin Heyne would have had nothing more to try if the jury had found him innocent.  However, because three guilty verdicts were read, there is now the matter of sentencing.  And with that, a sentencing trial to determine what a fair sentence should be.

The first trial took one week.  (It already took a week to pick the jury.)  Now, on Wednesday morning, that same jury resumes its position in the jury box of a Brevard County courtroom as the second trial begins.

The sentencing trial (the "penalty phase")

In the sentencing trial, more documentary evidence and witness testimony will be provided to the jury.  Aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances will be addressed, as the defense attorneys argue that Heyne should not die by lethal injection but instead serve three mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole. 

Whether the State of Florida should kill Justin Heyne is being decided in this second trial.

And, the jury doesn't decide this all alone.  The twelve jurors vote on a "recommendation" (it doesn't have to be unanimous) and this recommendation is taken into consideration by the trial court judge.  It is the judge who makes the ultimate decision. 

As we've discussed earlier, the Florida statutes list the aggravating factors that the prosecutor can prove with proper evidence to argue for capital punishment.  Florida law also lists the mitigating factors that the defense can use to fight for Heyne to live. 

The Grandmother Doesn't Want the Death Penalty

Something the jury may not hear (unless the defense provides it to them) is the position of Juanita Perez, the mother of Benjamin Hamilton and grandmother of  Ivory.  Perez doesn't want Heyne to die.

In fact, for many months now, Juanita Perez pushed the State Attorney to accept Heyne's offer to plead guilty to all three murders in exchange for three life sentences.   Why?  Juanita Perez understands the lengthy appellate process that will insue after the sentencing phase is completed in this case, and she doesn't want her family to have to live through those years and years of appeals. 

However, this mitigating factor -- the desires of the victims' mother and grandmother for closure -- has been ignored by the State, and they're fighting for Justin Heyne to die.   Sure, the prosecutor is using the standard response: the crime was heinous (a child was killed), other relatives aren't as strident as Mrs. Perez here, etc., etc.

Still, one has to wonder why the prosecutors are pushing for death when Ivory's own grandmother isn't wanting Justin to die for Ivory's murder.  It's up to the defense team to bring this very important circumstance to bear in the sentencing determination.   Just one more example of how important every due process step of a death penalty case can be, and how important qualified death penalty counsel are in a capital punishment case. 

U.S. Supreme Court nixes hearing Thompson v. McNeil (08-7369) - but does 32 years in a Death Row cell amount to cruel and unusual punishment?

This month, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear a well-watched Florida case, Thompson v. McNeil (08-7369), where William Lee Thompson, sentenced to death in a Florida court back in 1976, requested their consideration of the question: does extended delay of the sentence of death amount to cruel (if not unusual) punishment and therefore violate the 8th Amendment?

Well, the High Court did fail to grant writ (opinion), but that doesn't mean we don't have a lot to consider from the opinion that did spring forth. Let's ponder the following:

Justice John Paul Stevens' Statement

First, I've read that Justice John Paul Stevens issued a dissent in this case; however, technically it was not a dissent but a statement. And, a statement that conforms to his longstanding position that the the death penalty is wrong. (Stevens already called for an end to the death penalty.)

In it, Stevens wrote, "[o]ur experience during the past three decades has demonstrated that delays in state-sponsored killings are inescapable and that executing defendants after such is unacceptably cruel," to which Justice Stephen Breyer gave his support in a formal dissent from the denial of certiorari.

Justice Stephen Breyer's Dissent

In his dissent, Breyer went into the appellate pathways that the Williamson case has taken over the past 30+ years, including such considerations as the fact that Williamson's spent over half his life on Death Row while the appeals have taken a life all their own, and the reality that Williamson's accomplice - who might have been more culpable than Williamson in the underlying crime - was not sentenced to death. Interesting point.

Justice Clarence Thomas' Concurrence

Justice Clarence Thomas, meanwhile, wrote his own concurrence to the Court's denial of certiorari. In it, Thomas opined ""[i]t is the crime and not the punishment imposed by the jury or the delay in execution that was 'unacceptably cruel, ..." and thereafter provided extensive details on the underlying crime for which Thompson was convicted to support his position. (It is not disputed that the crime for which Thompson was convicted was shocking.)

Why Isn't This Cruel - If Not Unusual? Oh, and What About the Budget?

States across the country are arguing - and deciding, case in point being New Mexico (see last Monday's post), that capital punishment is too darn expensive given the state of the economy.

And, here comes a case where the U.S. Supreme Court has the opportunity to address this situation - is it cruel to keep a man, isolated, in a 6 foot by 9 foot cell, for over 30 years after he's had constitutional guarantees of a speedy trial that apparently aren't going to grant him anything close to a speedy appellate process?

Wouldn't providing for a speedy appellate process in death penalty cases not only help prisoners on Death Row, but help society as a whole by streamlining the costs of capital punishment?

This practicality was the jumping-off place for Justice Stevens in his Williamson Statement, where he pointed to his past work in Baze v. Rees, 533 U.S. __ (2008), slip op. at 12, quoting his prior words there, " ... time for a dispassionate, impartial comparison of the enormous costs that death penalty litigation imposes on society with the benefits that it produces has surely arrived."

In Depth Look: Death in Florida - 3

As stated earlier, a separate multi-step process exists between conviction and the imposition of the death penalty. After a defendant is found guilty of a capital offense subject to the death penalty, the first step is a second trial to determine whether death will be imposed. At this trial, the jury hears evidence concerning aggravators, circumstances that weigh toward death, and mitigators, which weigh in favor of mercy. The trial judge performs the next step by actually determining the sentence. Although the trial judge gives great weight to the jury recommendation, the trial judge is not bound by the jury's recommendation.

A trial judge has more experience in both the criminal process and facts of crimes themselves. What the average person, inexperienced in crimes, thinks is incredibly significant or especially heinous, may not in balance be so significant or heinous. The cool reasoning of a judge also serves to counterbalance any overly inflammatory prosecution.

Then the trial judge must justify a sentence of death in writing. This step is necessary so that the sentence is open to judicial review to ensure that the issue of life or death was decided according to the rule of law.

The final safeguard before imposing death is that the Supreme Court of Florida must review all death sentences. The court reviews the sentence for proportionality to ensure that the application is not unreasonable or inappropriate when compared to other cases. Thus, the defendant has one last opportunity before a court of law to argue against the most severe and final of all punishments.

In Depth Look: Death in Florida - 2

The mitigating circumstances that can apply in any given first degree murder case are those set forth in Florida Statute § 921.141(6):

1. § 921.141(6)(a): The defendant has no significant history of prior criminal history.

2. § 921.141(6)(b): The capital felony was committed while the defendant was under influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance.

3. § 921.141(6)(c): The victim was a participant in the defendant's conduct or consented to the act.

4. § 921.141(6)(d): The defendant was an accomplice in the capital felony committed by another person and his participation was relatively minor.

5. § 921.141(6)(e): The defendant acted under extreme duress or under- the substantial domination of another person.

6. § 921.141(6)(f): The capacity of the defendant to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law were substantially impaired.

7. § 921.141(6)(g): The age of the defendant at the time of the crime.

8. § 921.141(6)(h): The existence of any other factors in the defendant's background that would mitigate against imposition of a death sentence.

In Depth Look: Death in Florida

At the outset, death is different.

In State v. Dixon, 283 So. 2d 1 (Fla. 1973), the Supreme Court of Florida upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty statute. The court found that "death is unique punishment in its finality and in its total rejection of the possibility of rehabilitation." As such, the court confirmed that it was the intent of the legislature to reserve application of the death penalty "only to the most aggravated and least mitigated of the most serious crime." Accordingly, the Florida Legislature put into place a special process with safeguards so that the death penalty is applied properly after conviction of a capital crime.

Multi-Step Process Between Conviction and Imposition of the Death Penalty

A separate multi-step process exists between conviction and the imposition of the death penalty. After a defendant is found guilty of a capital offense subject to the death penalty, the first step is a second trial to determine whether death will be imposed. At this trial, the jury hears evidence concerning aggravators, circumstances that weigh toward death, and mitigators, which weigh in favor of mercy.

The defense and prosecution can present new evidence supporting these circumstances. The jury then makes a sentencing recommendation based on these aggravators and mitigators. Florida, unlike many other states, does not require that the death recommendation be unanimous. A simple majority, a single person, is all it takes for a recommendation of death.

The Fifteen Aggravating Circumstances As Defined by Florida Statute

The aggravating circumstances that can apply in any given first degree murder case are limited to those set forth in Florida Statute § 921.141(5). These circumstances are limited to fifteen possible aggravators:

1. § 921.141(5)(a): The capital felony was committed by a person previously convicted of a felony and under sentence of imprisonment or placed in community control or felony probation ("while serving a sentence").

2. § 921.141(5)(b): The defendant was previously convicted of another capital felony or of a felony involving the use or threat of violence to the person ("prior violent felony conviction").

3. § 921.141(5)(c): The defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons ("great risk of death").

4. § 921.141(5)(d): The capital felony was committed while the defendant was engaged, or was an accomplice, in the commission of, or an attempt to commit, or flight after committing or attempting to commit , any robbery; sexual battery; aggravated child abuse; abuse of an elderly person or disabled adult resulting in great bodily harm, permanent disfigurement; arson; burglary; kidnapping; aircraft piracy; or unlawful throwing, placing , or discharging of a destructive device or bomb ("during course of a felony").

5. § 921.141(5)(e): The capital felony was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest or affecting an escape from custody ("escape or avoiding arrest").

6. § 921.141(5)(f): The capital felony was committed for pecuniary gain ("pecuniary gain").

7. § 921.141(5)(g): The capital felony was committed to disrupt or hinder the lawful exercise of any governmental function or the enforcement of laws ("disrupting government function").

8. § 921.141(5)(h): The capital felony was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel ("HAC").

9. § 921.141(5)(i): The capital felony was a homicide and was committed in cold, calculated and premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification ("CCP").

10. § 921.141(5)(j): The victim of the capital felony was a law enforcement officer engaged in the performance of his or her official duties ("LEO victim").

11. § 921.141(5)(k): The victim of the capital felony was an elected or appointed public official engaged in the performance of his or her official duties if the motive for the capital felony was related, in whole or in part, to the victim's official capacity ("government official performing duties").

12. § 921.141(5)(l): The victim of the capital felony was a person less than 12 years of age ("child under 12").

13. § 921.141(5)(m): The victim of the capital felony was particularly vulnerable due to advanced age or disability, or because the defendant stood in a position of familial or custodial authority over the victim ("advanced age or disability").

14. § 921.141(5)(n):The capital felony was committed by a criminal street gang member, as defined in § 874.03 ("street gang member").

15. § 921.141(5)(o):The capital felony was committed by a person designated as a sexual predator pursuant to § 775.21 or a person previously designated as a sexual predator who had the sexual predator designation removed ("sexual predator").

Next Friday - an in-depth look at Death in Florida continues with the mitigating factors that can apply in any first degree murder case under Florida law.

 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...