TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Uncertainty will continue over compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that rejected absolute life sentences for juveniles who haven't killed anyone until a higher court or the Florida Legislature addresses the issue, an appellate panel said Thursday.
A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal then urged lawmakers to follow the high court's guidance and explore how to comply with its opinion, which was part of a decision striking down an 80-year sentence.
A term that long is the functional equivalent of life without parole, the appellate judges wrote as they sent the case back to a Pensacola trial court for resentencing.
Judges across the nation are struggling with the high court's decision. The 1st District's ruling conflicts with some appellate decisions in Florida and other states that have approved longer term-of-years sentences.
The Supreme Court decision doesn't limit sentence length but says juveniles must get a meaningful opportunity to seek release based on maturity and rehabilitation if they have been convicted of non-homicide crimes. It also doesn't preclude the possibility a juvenile will spend his or her life behind bars but does "forbid states from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society."
The high court's 5-4 decision last year reversed a life sentence Terrance Graham had received for armed robberies committed when he was 16 and 17 in Jacksonville. The majority ruled the sentence amounted to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.
The 1st District's ruling came in the case of Antonio Demetrius Floyd, who received a new sentencing hearing as the result of the Graham case. Graham and Floyd were among about 220 inmates originally sentenced to life in Florida for non-homicide crimes committed while they were under 18. That's more than 70 percent of the total nationally.
Floyd, now 31, committed a pair of armed robberies in Escambia County with what a prosecutor called a "realistic looking" pellet gun when he was 17 in 1998. He also received five years for auto theft. After the Graham ruling, Floyd was resentenced to two consecutive 40-year terms for the armed robberies.
That would mean he couldn't be released until 85 even if he received the maximum time off for good behavior, the appellate panel wrote in an unsigned opinion. He would be 97 if he served the full sentence.
"This situation does not in any way provide appellant with a meaningful or realistic opportunity to obtain release," the judges wrote. They cited statistics showing 85 years is beyond Floyd's life expectancy.
A spokesman for Attorney General Pam Bondi had no immediate comment on whether the decision would be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.
Bills were filed in the Legislature this year that would have helped the state comply with the Graham decision, but they did not pass. They would have let a judge reduce a sentence of 10 of more years for non-homicide crimes committed as a juvenile once an inmate was at least 25 years old.
In ordering that Floyd be resentenced, District Judges Marguerite Davis, William Van Nortwick and Philip Padovano noted the appellate court has approved sentences of 50 and 70 years in similar cases.
The Daytona Beach-based 5th District Court of Appeal and a California appellate court, though, have upheld sentences of 90 and 110 years.
"We disagree with those courts, however, that a lengthy term-of-years sentence cannot constitute the functional equivalent of a life sentence without parole," the 1st District panel wrote.
The opinion also cited a ruling by a federal judge in South Florida that struck down a 307-year sentence and a California appellate court decision that found a 56-year, six-month sentence was unconstitutional because the defendant wouldn't be eligible for parole until about the time he was expected to die.
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