TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The state Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously overturned the death sentence of a man convicted of killing a Florida State University graduate student in 2010, ruling that prosecutors had agreed they wouldn’t pursue the death penalty if he helped in the investigation.
Justices upheld the first-degree murder conviction of Kentrell Johnson and ordered that he serve life in prison in the slaying of student Vincent Binder. Johnson and two other men went on a crime spree after escaping from a Louisiana jail and kidnapped Binder on April 2, 2010, as he walked home from a gathering with friends, the ruling said.
Binder disappeared, and his debit card was used in various parts of the state. Johnson and the other defendants were arrested April 12, 2010, in Miami. After Johnson was returned to Tallahassee, the state attorney’s office in Leon County agreed not to seek the death penalty in exchange for Johnson helping lead investigators to the body, though the agreement was not put in writing, Thursday’s ruling said.
Johnson later drew a map that led to the discovery of Binder’s body in St. Johns County. Johnson was charged with murder in St. Johns County, which is in the 7th Judicial Circuit. Leon County is in the 2nd Judicial Circuit.
Prosecutors in St. Johns County sought the death penalty, and a judge ruled that the agreement reached with the state attorney’s office in Leon County was not binding in the other circuit. But the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the agreement should have prevented Johnson from facing the death penalty.
“Second Judicial Circuit state attorneys had authority to enter into an agreement at all times during which they dealt with Johnson --- and could have held the trial within their jurisdiction,” the Supreme Court ruled. “Under these circumstances, once Johnson performed his end of the bargain, the state was obligated to uphold its end of the agreement no matter which circuit tried Johnson’s case. To allow the state to avoid its promise to a defendant, made by a state attorney with authority over a case, by transferring the case to another circuit violates general contract principles and notions of fundamental fairness.”
Six justices fully signed onto the opinion, while Justice R. Fred Lewis concurred in the result.