(CN) – It is unconstitutional for Florida judges to impose the death penalty without having jurors make independent findings as to aggravating factors, a Miami federal judge ruled, and the move is expected to ignite a rash of appeals by death-row inmates. In the high-profile murder trial against Casey Anthony, the young mother charged with killing her toddler in 2008, her team filed a motion Monday for a mistrial.
The underlying decision has halted the execution of Paul Evans, whom a jury convicted of first-degree murder for the death of Alan Pfeiffer at a Vero Beach, Fla., trailer park.
Pfeiffer’s wife hired Evans, then 19, to kill her husband to end their “rocky” relationship and to collect on a $120,000 life insurance policy, according to court records.
After returning the guilty verdict, the jury voted 9-3 in a separate proceeding to recommend a death sentence, and the trial judge imposed that penalty.
The judge noted that aggravating factors supported the death penalty, including the fact that Evans committed murder for hire and carried out the crime in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner.
Evans argued, among 17 claims for habeas relief, that Florida’s death-penalty scheme – in which a jury recommends a sentence of life imprisonment or death, but a trial judge decides what sentence to impose – is unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona.
In that case, an Arizona jury convicted Timothy Ring of first-degree murder after he robbed an armored car and killed its driver in 1994, and a judge sentenced Ring to death.
But the Supreme Court decided that Arizona law required the trial judge to conduct a separate sentencing hearing, and find at least one statutory aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt, before imposing the maximum penalty of death.
U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez agreed last week in a 94-page ruling that this case has bearing, while quashing the bulk of Evans’ arguments, including ineffective counsel, witness credibility and withheld evidence.
“Ring held that, under the Sixth Amendment, a sentencing court cannot, over a defendant’s objections, make factual findings with respect to aggravating circumstances necessary for the imposition of the death penalty,” Martinez wrote. “Such findings must, as a constitutional matter, be made by a jury.”
In Evans’ case, Martinez said, “The jury did not articulate which, if any, mitigating or aggravating circumstances they found in reaching their ultimate conclusion that Mr. Evans should be sentenced to death.”
“Pursuant to state law, the jury was only required to make a recommendation as to Mr. Evans’s sentence; the jury did not answer any interrogatories as to the finding of existence of specific aggravating or mitigating circumstances, the vote of the jury as to each of them, or how the various circumstances were weighed,” the ruling states.
Martinez explained that the jury “may have not reached a majority finding as to any one aggravating factor.”
As such, “the Florida sentencing statue leaves open the very real possibility that in substance the judge still makes the factual findings necessary for the imposition of the death penalty as opposed to the jury as required by Ring,” according to the ruling.
Evans, on death row at the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, must receive a new sentencing hearing consistent with this decision within 90 days, barring an appeal by the state or a stay of the order.