|DATE:||May 14, 2020|
|TO:||USF & NRA Members and Friends|
|FROM:||Marion P. Hammer|
|USF Executive Director|
|NRA Past President|
May 14, 2020
TALLAHASSEE --- As it upheld the conviction of a Northeast Florida man in the grisly murder of his estranged wife, the state Supreme Court on Thursday tossed out a decades-old legal standard about circumstantial evidence in criminal appeals.
The court’s four-member majority said the change would lead to Florida joining federal courts and most other states in how judges weigh cases that only involve circumstantial evidence.
“For many years, Florida has been an outlier in that we have used a different standard to evaluate evidence on appeal in a wholly circumstantial evidence case than in a case with some direct evidence,” said the opinion shared by Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson and Carlos Muniz.
But Justice Jorge Labarga dissented on changing the legal standard, writing that the Supreme Court for more than a century has “applied a more stringent standard of review in reviewing convictions supported only by circumstantial evidence.” He said the longtime standard would have led to upholding the conviction of Sean Alonzo Bush, the defendant in Thursday’s case.
“Yet today, this court eliminates another reasonable safeguard in our death penalty jurisprudence and in Florida’s criminal law across the board,” Labarga wrote. “Circumstantial evidence is a vital evidentiary tool, and the admission of such evidence is commonly relied on by the state to establish its case-in-chief. However, circumstantial evidence is inherently different from direct evidence in a manner that warrants heightened consideration on appellate review.”
In the underlying case Thursday, the court upheld the conviction and death sentence of Bush, who was accused of brutally murdering his estranged wife, Nicole, in 2011 in the Julington Creek area of St. Johns County. An autopsy showed that the victim suffered six gunshot wounds, including five to the head, and was stabbed and beaten, including suffering three blows to the head that split her skull.
The gun and the weapon used to stab Nicole Bush were never found, and authorities did not have direct evidence that the estranged husband committed the murder. But authorities developed large amounts of circumstantial evidence, including about issues such as a life-insurance policy that named him as a beneficiary.
A jury convicted Bush based on the circumstantial evidence, ultimately resulting in his death sentence. While his attorneys raised a series of arguments in the appeal, all five Supreme Court justice agreed the evidence was adequate to uphold his conviction.
“During the months leading up to the murder, Bush was in severe financial distress, unable to pay his rent on time, responsible for paying child support, and asking others for money,” Thursday’s opinion said. “Bush expressed that he was ‘broke as a joke’ and low on cash. Bush was the beneficiary of Nicole’s $815,240 life insurance policy, and he was aware for some time prior to the murder that he had been designated as the policy beneficiary. Several weeks after the murder, Bush called to confirm his beneficiary status and subsequently submitted a claim for the policy proceeds. Because a rational trier of fact could, and did, find from this evidence that Bush committed the first-degree murder of Nicole under both premeditated and felony murder theories, Bush is not entitled to relief.”
The court majority, however, also used the case as a springboard to abandon what it called a “special appellate standard” in circumstantial-evidence cases. It said that decades ago “all federal courts and almost all state courts instructed juries using a special standard when the evidence of a defendant’s guilt presented at trial was circumstantial.”
But after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 called the standard into question, federal courts and most states stopped using the special standard, Thursday’s opinion said. Florida stopped using the standard to instruct juries in 1981 but continued to use it in considering criminal appeals.
Quoting a lower-court decision, Thursday’s opinion gave a definition of the special standard: “Where the only proof of guilt is circumstantial, no matter how strongly the evidence may suggest guilt, a conviction cannot be sustained unless the evidence is inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence.”
But the majority described that standard as confusing and said appellate courts in circumstantial-evidence cases should use a standard like in cases with at least some direct evidence ---- “whether the state presented competent, substantial evidence to support the verdict.”
Thursday’s opinion was at least the third time in the past year that the Supreme Court has reversed course on decisions made by justices in the past. Last May, it changed a decision about controversial expert-witness standards in lawsuits and in January backed away from a decision that required unanimous jury recommendations before murder defendants could be sentenced to death.
The changes have come after conservatives became a majority of the court in early 2019. Longtime justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, who had been part of left-leaning majority, left the court in January 2019 because of a mandatory retirement age, allowing remaining conservative justices and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to reshape the court.