State Supreme Court ruling raises questions for murder victims' family

Court demands unanimous juries in death sentences; death row inmates in limbo

By Francesca Amiker - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A Jacksonville woman whose brother and sister-in-law were murdered in 2005 believes that justice will be served regardless, even if the three people convicted in the crime appeal their death sentences after the Florida Supreme Court ruled Friday that juries must be unanimous for the death penalty to be imposed. 

The Florida court, in a 5-2 ruling, said juries are required to be unanimous in recommending death sentences, finding unconstitutional a law passed by the Florida Legislature earlier this year allowing the death penalty if the jury recommendation was at least 10-2.

The immediate impact of Friday's decision on Florida's nearly 400 death row inmates was unclear, but the 89-page ruling left undisputed that unanimous jury recommendations are required for defendants to be ordered to death, in contrast with a hurriedly crafted law passed in March.

Not only does the ruling put death penalty cases in limbo, but it also raises questions for Rev. Jean Clark, who received a tragic call 11 years ago that the bodies of her brother Reggie Sumner and his wife, Carol, had been found by authorities.

"I have family members still traumatized. Their lives have been totally changed," Clark said. 

According to police, the couple sold a car to Tiffany Cole before she and three others kidnapped the couple, robbed them and then buried them alive in a shallow grave. The group even took photos with the stolen cash in a limo, police said. 

Three of the four involved were convicted and sentenced to death. 

Friday's ruling states that existing cases where death sentences were imposed with less than a unanimous jury recommendation are not required to be commuted to life in prison. While awaiting the Supreme Court opinion, several death penalty appeals have already been filed, and many more may follow now that the ruling calls for unanimous recommendations. 

Rev. Jean Clark

"Law are put in order to keep order. And if we keeping changing laws, people look at that and they say, 'They'll change the law. I'll do what I want to do,'" Clark said. 

Even if the three people who killed her loved ones do decide to appeal, Clark said it won't bother her because, either way, they'll remain in prison and justice will be served.

"Two innocent people that opened up their home and gave, would have given them the shirt off their back, let them stay in the house, sold her a car, if you'll do that to innocent people who can't fight back, they both were sickly, both had health issues and you tape them up, throw them in the back of the car, what else would you do?" Clark said. 

There is no word yet if the three people convicted in the murders of Reggie and Carol Sumner will appeal. 

A spokesperson for the state attorney's office released the following statement about the ruling:

“The death penalty is still a viable sentence in the state of Florida. Today’s decision by the Florida Supreme Court will not affect the way we determine whether to seek a death sentence in a case. As always, we will follow the law and in appropriate cases, we will seek the death penalty."

The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.
 

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