Florida courts facing juvenile sentencing issues
Florida courts in quandary after US Supreme Court voids automatic life for juvenile killers
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down laws requiring automatic life sentences without parole for juvenile killers is presenting some thorny legal issues for Florida judges.
That includes an appellate court that split over how to apply the decision to a Jacksonville case Friday.
A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal unanimously upheld Thomas Partlow's murder conviction but ordered a new sentencing hearing. Partlow was 16 years old when he fatally stabbed a man after robbing him of $3 three years ago.
By a 2-1 vote, though, the panel declined to offer the trial judge any guidance. That part of the ruling pleased Partlow's lawyers.
"This is the remedy we have been looking for," said Assistant Public Defender Glen Gifford.
The high court last year in a pair of cases from Alabama and Arkansas decided that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles constitute cruel and unusual punishment and, thus, are unconstitutional. Judges must consider age and other factors when sentencing juvenile killers, the majority said in the 5-4 decision.
Most states, including Florida, required life without parole for certain types of murder if juvenile defendants were prosecuted as adults.
The ruling could affect more than 260 cases in Florida, according to the advocacy group Fair Sentencing of Youth, if it's determined to be retroactive. That's another issue that Florida courts are tussling with.
In the Partlow case, District Judge Scott Makar dissented on the issue of advising the trial judge. Makar agreed with the state's argument that teenage killers should be eligible for parole after serving at least 25 years of their life sentences because that's what Florida law said before it was changed to eliminate parole in 1994.
A spokesman for the attorney general's office said lawyers there were reviewing the case to determine whether that issue would be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.
A separate three-judge panel of the 1st District in November also refused to offer any guidance by a 2-1 vote after unanimously ordering a new sentencing hearing for Tyree Rashaad Washington. He was 16 when he participated in the 2010 shooting death of another teen during a marijuana robbery in Fort Walton Beach. A co-defendant fired the fatal shot, but Washington was convicted of felony first-degree murder because he gave the gun to the shooter and helped plan the robbery.
"A discourse by this court on other sentencing options is premature," Judge Ronald Swanson wrote for the majority. "The better course calls for this court to exercise restraint and for the parties to make their case before the trial judge."
That way lawyers could offer testimony and present evidence, which is not allowed in appellate cases, as well as make legal arguments, Swanson added.
District Judge James Wolf dissented. He wrote that failing to offer guidance to trial judges will deprive the Florida Supreme Court "the benefit of our thoughts on an issue which will ultimately reach that court."
Wolf disagreed with the state's argument as well the one made by defense lawyers, who contend that juveniles should be sentenced to a fixed term of years but be immediately eligible for parole.
The Florida Legislature, though, "has repeatedly, arguably unwisely, eschewed the alternative of parole," Wolf wrote. "The sentencing option which is closest to the legislative expression of intent and involves the least rewriting of the statute is a sentence of a term of years without possibility of parole."
Wolf also was on the Partlow panel but joined District Judge Stephanie Ray in refusing to offer resentencing guidance. While he believes the appellate court should address that issue, Wolf wrote that he was constrained by the prior ruling in Washington's case.
Ray also noted that issuing a decision conflicting with the Washington panel could result in different sentencing treatment for "similarly situated juveniles."
In the Partlow case, Makar wrote that he would have asked the Florida Supreme Court to step in. The majority, though, declined to certify the issue of resentencing guidance as a question of great public importance, again noting the panel in Washington's case previously had refused to do so.
Partlow and Washington each had appeals pending when the U.S. Supreme Court made its ruling in June.
In two other cases, three-judge panels of the 1st District and Miami-based 3rd District Court of Appeal have said it does not apply to cases that were final before the Supreme Court ruled. Gifford said his office will appeal the 1st District's retroactivity ruling to the state justices. Defense lawyers in the Miami case have asked for a rehearing before the full 3rd District Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court's homicide ruling was the latest in a series of decisions on juvenile sentencing. It previously struck down the death sentence for juveniles and life sentences for non-homicide offenses.
The latter ruling also has raised legal questions in Florida and several cases are pending before the state Supreme Court.
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