Florida Supreme Court Ponders New Juvenile Sentencing Law

July 21, 2014

The Florida Supreme Court has asked attorneys how a new state law might affect cases dealing with inmates who were sentenced to long prison terms for committing murders or other major crimes when they were juveniles.

The new law went into effect July 1 and was designed to carry out two landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings based on the idea that juveniles are different from adults and function at different stages of brain development. As a result, the U.S. Supreme Court held, juvenile sentencing guidelines must offer young offenders the chance to have their cases reviewed after serving a certain number of years.

Now the question is whether the state law or the U.S. Supreme Court rulings are retroactive to sentences imposed on juveniles in the past.

Last month the Florida Supreme Court asked attorneys in cases that might be affected by the new sentencing guidelines to submit briefs on the issue.That included cases from Bay and Duval counties, where juveniles were sentenced to 70 years or more. The attorney general’s office also is expected to weigh in.

One of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, in a 2010 case known as Graham v. Florida, banned life sentences without a “meaningful opportunity” for release for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. The other ruling, in a 2012 case known as Miller v. Alabama, banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. Juveniles can still face life sentences in such cases, but judges must weigh criteria such as the offenders’ maturity and the nature of the crimes before imposing that sentence.

That’s why the Florida Legislature this spring passed HB 7035, calling for judicial hearings and sentencing standards that vary depending on the nature of the crimes. Under the law, a juvenile convicted of a murder classified as a capital felony could be sentenced to life in prison after a hearing to determine whether such a sentence is appropriate. If a judge finds that a life sentence is not appropriate, the juvenile would be sentenced to at least 35 years. Also, juveniles convicted in such cases would be entitled to reviews after 25 years.

But while the new law tries to bring Florida into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, it doesn’t mention retroactivity. Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, the law’s Senate sponsor, said it was not intended to address that issue.

“We were simply looking at a statutory scheme that was clearly unconstitutional,” the Fleming Island Republican said. “We were looking at two United States Supreme Court decisions that set forth certain parameters, and we developed a sentencing framework that complied with those two decisions. As far as how that applied individually to individual defendants, we’ll leave that to the court system.”

In the years between the U.S. Supreme Court rulings and the new law taking effect, juvenile sentencing cases have landed at the Florida Supreme Court.

As an example, one of the pending cases concerns Rebecca Falcon, who is serving a life sentence for a murder she committed in Bay County in the course of a botched robbery in 1997, when she was 15 years old. Another, from Duval County, involves Shimeeka Gridine, who was sentenced to 70 years in prison for crimes — attempted first-degree murder, attempted armed robbery and aggravated battery — committed during an attempt to rob a gas station in 2009, when Gridine was 14 years old.

“We believe that (the) Miller (ruling) itself is retroactive,” said Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Florida office. She said Falcon and Gridine should be entitled to re-sentencing hearings.

Falcon’s attorneys are seeking to have her mandatory sentence — life without parole — vacated under the Miller ruling, arguing that as a new rule of constitutional law, it is retroactive for the courts.

“I’m not arguing that the new (state) law should be applied retroactively,” said Karen M. Gottlieb, an attorney for Falcon. “I’m arguing that the court has an inherent power and obligation to enforce constitutional rules of law that are retroactive. … That’s an important distinction.”

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said the Florida Supreme Court faces a balancing act. On one hand, the justices must comply with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings; on the other, he said, juveniles who commit serious felonies are a threat to public safety.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has already clearly said you can’t give them what amounts to a life sentence,” Judd said. “But we’re dealing with an extremely small percentage of people who are extremely violent, and the overwhelming majority of them would be again when set free upon society.”

But Galloni of the Southern Poverty Law Center said juveniles who commit crimes are still capable of changing the course of their lives.

“I think everyone involved in policymaking should be basing their decisions not on emotion or visceral reaction but on the science, on the facts,” she said. “And we know from the science of brain development that children are going to change.”

by Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida


6 Responses to “Florida Supreme Court Ponders New Juvenile Sentencing Law”

  1. Rozum Brada on July 27th, 2014 4:08 am

    For the record:

    A child in Florida does NOT have to kill anyone DELIBERATELY in order to be convicted of 1st degree murder. In fact the definition of 1st degree murder in Florida does NOT require the child either killed or anticipated a fatal outcome.

    Rebecca Falcon was convicted based on so-called felony murder, which says if anyone dies during the commission of enumerated felonies, all participants in the underlying felony are guilty of first degree murder, AS IF they deliberately killed a person. The jury in her case never ruled — never was asked to rule — on the question of who actually shot the taxi driver (she was with an adult accomplice in the taxi) and if the shooting was intentional rather than accidental.

    Note that when Lionel Tate was convicted, the jury only ruled that the victim (Tiffany) died as a result of unreasonable yet willful endangerment by Lionel, which was sufficient for a MANDATORY conviction of 1st degree murder. Jury members said they believed Lionel neither intended not anticipated Tiffany’s death.

  2. David Huie Green on July 23rd, 2014 10:16 am

    Do you think the executioner should be executed?

    Me neither

    l rhodes,
    A man has the right to kill those who threaten his family. No jury would say otherwise.

  3. Dennis HE Wiggins on July 22nd, 2014 11:02 am

    Mr. Green ~ a threat to whom? Maybe the executioner is not threatened by the murderer at his execution, but who can say that the other inmates aren’t threatened by him? Or, if he is released, who is to say we ALL wouldn’t be threatened by his lifestyle?

    An eye for an eye, or turn the other cheek? Man is not supposed to judge, yet we do. We render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, so why not put them to death ~ it is “Caesar’s” law that says we can. When his last breath is taken, we will then render unto God what is God’s.

  4. l rhodes on July 22nd, 2014 9:38 am

    No man has the right to kill , simple as that

  5. David Huie Green on July 21st, 2014 7:01 pm

    “A person who deliberately kills another person who was not a threat, should be executed”

    But to execute him, you have to kill him.
    That means the executioner should be executed.
    But THAT would require HE be killed …

    I assume you make allowances for that, but words should be chosen carefully.

  6. perdido fisherman on July 21st, 2014 7:53 am

    I don’t care how old someone is when they commit murder, they should never see the light of day again. A person who deliberately kills another person who was not a threat, should be executed no matter how old they are at the time of the murder.