After having two death sentences thrown out because of recent high court rulings, prosecutors have decided to again seek the death penalty for two men convicted of murder years ago in two separate cases.
Attorneys for James Daniel Turner and Norman Blake McKenzie were both in Circuit Judge Howard Maltz’s St. Johns County courtroom on Tuesday afternoon for status conferences regarding their clients’ cases.
Maltz, earlier this year, vacated both men’s death sentences after the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2016, struck down Florida’s old sentencing scheme for death penalty cases in a case called Hurst v. Florida.
The court found that the procedures violated the defendant’s right to a trial by jury by allowing the judge to make the final decision after considering the jury’s recommendation. It also took issue with those recommendations having to come from only a majority of jurors rather than a unanimous decision.
Legislators responded that same year by passing a new law that required a 10-2 vote from jurors for a death sentence, but that was quickly shot down by the Florida Supreme Court, which found that the Hurst decision, and its predecessor — a 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona in which the U.S. Supreme Court examined many of the same issues — meant that a unanimous decision from jurors was needed for a death sentence.
Gov. Rick Scott signed a new law in March requiring just that.
While Turner’s and McKenzie’s convictions still stand, they do have to be resentenced after Maltz found that, because jurors in their trials did not vote unanimously for the death sentence, they are eligible for new penalty phases because of what courts have come to call a “Hurst error.”
Turner, who appeared in court with his attorney Tuesday, was convicted of first-degree murder in 2007 for the 2005 stabbing death of Renee Boling Howard of Crescent Beach after he escaped from a South Carolina prison. Then-Circuit Court Judge Wendy Berger sentenced him to death in 2008 after a 10-2 jury recommendation for the sentence during the penalty phase of his trial.
Berger, who now serves on the 5th District Court of Appeal, also handed down two death sentences for McKenzie after two 10-2 recommendations from a jury in 2007. Months earlier, jurors had convicted him of first-degree murder for killing Randy Wayne Peacock and Charles Frank Johnston with a hatchet. Peacock was also stabbed.
McKenzie, who was not in court Tuesday, will be returning to the St. Johns County jail to await sentencing. Turner will be returning to state prison where he is also serving time on other charges related to the 2005 murder.
Both cases are scheduled for another status conference in November. The new penalty phases are expected to take place some time next year.