The St. Johns County courthouse saw two death penalty murder cases inch toward conclusion Friday morning as jurors were set to decide the fate of a Volusia County defendant who was convicted of three counts of murder last month, and Circuit Judge Howard Maltz heard witness testimony and attorneys’ final arguments before deciding whether to affirm or override a jury’s decision to impose the death sentence in the state’s case against Sean Alonzo Bush.
It was a busy day for Assistant State Attorney Mark Johnson who, in a brief set of arguments Friday morning at the conclusion of what is called a Spencer hearing, told Maltz that he believed the five aggravating factors that the he and Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Dunton proved to a jury in August were sufficient for imposition of the death penalty for Bush, who was convicted earlier that same month of killing his estranged wife, Nicole Bush.
Less than an hour after appearing before Maltz in the third-floor courtroom, Johnson was scheduled to be on the second floor of the courthouse appearing before a jury and Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano to make closing arguments in the penalty phase of the case against Luis Toledo, who was convicted last of killing his wife and her two children in 2013. The state is seeking the death penalty.
(For more on that Volusia County case, see the story on page 3.)
Jurors convicted Bush in early August of first-degree murder for killing Nicole Bush, who was found shot, beaten with an aluminum baseball bat and stabbed in her Julington Creek home in May 2011. She died later that same day in a Jacksonville hospital.
Jurors voted unanimously for a death sentence on Aug. 17 after finding that, among other things, the murder was done for financial gain, was “heinous, atrocious and cruel,” and was “cold, calculated and premeditated.”
Johnson told Maltz Friday that it was those last two factors that were the most important in the case. Not only had Bush planned the killing, Johnson argued, by searching the Internet for ways to build to silencer for a gun and disconnecting the security system in Nicole Bush’s home, but when shooting her six times did not kill her, he “transitioned” to the “heinous, atrocious and cruel” act of trying to beat her to death with the bat.
“This is a proportionate sentence,” Johnson said.
Most of the morning’s hearing though was given over to Bush’s defense attorney Rosemarie Peoples, with the Public Defender’s Office, who, just as she had in the penalty phase, argued that Bush’s difficult childhood in Newark, New Jersey, where he was raised, virtually homeless, by a schizophrenic mother and was witness to, and victim of, various forms of abuse was a sufficient mitigating factor to spare her client’s life.
She also called a former prison warden who testified that Bush appears to have adjusted to a life of incarceration and would be a benefit to the general population in a state prison where he could mentor younger inmates instead of living out his last days in near-solitary confinement on death row.
In her closing argument, Peoples argued that Bush was not among the “worst of the worst” defendants for whom the death penalty should be reserved and pointed to infamous Florida defendants, Ted Bundy and Danny Rolling, for contrast.
She also drew on trial testimony from the first responding Sheriff’s deputy at the scene, who testified that Nicole Bush said, before she died, that she did not know who attacked her.
In one of the only times he as spoken at length during courtroom proceedings, Bush told Maltz that he feels “horrible for the family,” but said he did not kill his wife.
“While I appreciate the magnitude of the situation, I am innocent and I maintain that,” he said.
Maltz scheduled sentencing in the case for Dec. 18.