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Florida Supreme Court tosses out life and lifelong sentences for juveniles

Melinda Morris
By: Melinda Morris
Mar. 26 2015

cuffedboy-wallThe State’s highest court handed down four decisions last week ruling that certain Florida laws pertaining to sentencing were unconstitutional under precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court. The rulings have an impact on serious juvenile offenders.

Two of the cases involve Miller v. Alabama, a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Court found that a law prescribing a mandatory life sentence without chance of parole was unconstitutional.

In Falcon v. Florida, the defendant was 15 years old in 1997 when she participated in an armed robbery that resulted in a cab driver being killed. She had a traumatic childhood, including sexual and emotional abuse suffered while at home and at school. She was intoxicated at the time of the crime, and agreed to participate based on movies she had seen showing robberies.

The robbery did not go as planned, and the victim was killed. Falcon was convicted of first degree murder and attempted robbery with a firearm. Under Florida Annotated Statutes § 775.082 at the time (it has since been amended by the Florida Legislature), a person convicted of a capital felony could be sentenced to either death or life imprisonment without parole.

In Miller, the Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life without parole violated the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment when applied to a person who was younger than 18 at the time the crime was committed. A mandatory sentence precludes taking into account factors like the immaturity of young people, the failure to consider risks and consequences and the juvenile’s home situation, Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the decision.

The Florida Supreme Court found that the Miller decision was retroactive, and applied to people currently in prison for life sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles. The court ruled that those affected by the ruling have two years to file a motion to seek relief. If you or a loved one may be able to seek a lesser sentence or release from prison under the ruling, contact a skilled St. Petersburg criminal defense lawyer today.

In Florida v. Horsley, the defendant was 17 and also convicted of a first degree murder that occurred during a robbery and sentenced to life in prison. Horsley’s case was still being appealed when Miller was decided; however, it was decided before the Florida Legislature amended the statute to reflect Miller. The case was over how to handle the sentence.  The Court ruled that Horsley was entitled to individualized consideration.

The other two Florida decisions pertained to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Florida, a 2010 decision that determined juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison for any offense other than homicide.

In Henry v. Florida, the defendant, a 17-year-old, was found guilty of three counts of sexual battery with a weapon, two counts of robbery, one count each of kidnapping, burglary of a dwelling, carjacking and possession of marijuana. He was sentenced to life, plus 60 years. After Graham, the court resentenced him to three concurrent 30-year sentences instead of life, to run consecutively with the 60-year sentence. This added up to 90 years in prison.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled this sentence did not give Henry a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” and remanded the case for resentencing.

Finally, in Gridine v. Florida, the Court ruled that attempted first degree murder did not constitute a homicide offense, and a 70-year sentence was therefore unconstitutional.

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