The Florida court, in a 4-3 ruling, found that Howard Steven Ault is entitled to a new sentencing proceeding, though it also upheld his convictions in the murders of 11-year-old Deanne Mu’min and 7-year-old Alicia Jones.
The majority, made up of Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, ordered the resentencing because of a January 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Hurst v. Florida.
That ruling said Florida law gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries, in sentencing defendants to death.
Thursday’s majority, in part, pointed to a 9-3 jury recommendation that Ault receive a death sentence in the Mu’min murder and a 10-2 jury recommendation in the Jones murder. Those recommendations came in a 2007 resentencing hearing.
“In light of the non-unanimous recommendations of death and failure of the jury to make any findings as to the aggravating and mitigating factors, any attempt to discern what jurors would have done if properly instructed under Hurst is purely speculative,” the majority wrote. “Therefore, we cannot conclude that the Hurst error in Ault’s resentencing was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson dissented on vacating the death sentences.
With fallout continuing from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a new sentencing proceeding for a death row inmate convicted of murdering two young sisters in 1996 in Broward County.