Florida Death Penalty Vacated - Example Case

In Johnson v. State, 720 So. 2d 232 (Fla. 1998), the Court vacated sentence of death where mitigating circumstances outweighed aggravating factors-that murder was committed during course of robbery and defendant had previously been convicted of four violent felonies. In that case, the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery-related offenses for the shooting death of Willie Gaines. The trial court found two aggravators and several mitigators: (1) Johnson was twenty-two at the time of the crime; (2) Johnson voluntarily surrendered to the police; (3) Johnson had a troubled childhood; (4) Johnson was previously employed; (5) Johnson was respectful to his parents and neighbors; (6) Johnson had a young daughter; (7) Johnson earned his GED and participated in high school athletics. The Court upheld his conviction for first-degree murder under both premeditated and felony murder theories, but vacated his sentence of death. See 720 So. 2d at 236. In so concluding, the Court approved the trial court's finding that the murder was aggravated by the defendant's prior convictions of four violent felonies-aggravated assault, aggravated battery, robbery with a firearm, and attempted murder-and the fact the murder was committed during the course of a burglary. See id. at 237-38. However, the Court found that the prior violent felony aggravator was not strong when the circumstances surrounding the prior offenses were considered. See id. at 238. The Court reasoned that the aggravated assault charge was based on an offense committed by appellant against his brother and that his brother testified that he was not injured by the affray and that it occurred as a result of a misunderstanding. The two attempt charges resulted from appellant's conviction as a principal to the offenses committed by his brother contemporaneously with the murder of Gaines. See id. When the Court considered these factors with the mitigating evidence presented and similar other capital cases, we concluded that the crime committed by appellant was "not among those for which the death penalty is specifically reserved under State v. Dixon, 283 So. 2d 1, 10 (Fla. 1973)" Id.