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.