Chaos over Juvenile Killers; Florida Courts Differ after U.S. Supreme Court Ruling

By Hannan, Larry | The Florida Times Union, February 17, 2013 | Go to article overview

Chaos over Juvenile Killers; Florida Courts Differ after U.S. Supreme Court Ruling


Hannan, Larry, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Larry Hannan

Last month a Jacksonville teenager who was 16 when he stabbed a man to death for $3 in 2010 had his life sentence without parole thrown out.

What happens next to Thomas Partlow is anybody's guess.

Partlow was ordered re-sentenced because of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case that found laws mandating juveniles be sentenced to life in prison without parole are cruel and unusual punishment. He will remain in prison while awaiting a new sentence.

That ruling appears to be in conflict with Florida law, and judges are caught in the middle, said J.D. Moorehead, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law.

"There is no longer any penalty available for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder," Moorehead said. "We now have all of these cases in limbo."

Partlow and two friends robbed 49-year-old Grady Williamson and then fatally stabbed him off Lem Turner Road in January 2010. State Attorney Angela Corey chose to try him as an adult, and he was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery and sentenced by Circuit Judge Mark Mahon to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Florida law requires such sentences for everyone convicted of first-degree murder who aren't sentenced to death, and that applies to juveniles who are tried as adults.

While Florida law appears to be in conflict with the Supreme Court, state appellate judges also are in conflict with each other.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami found that the Supreme Court ruling was not retroactive, meaning that everyone sentenced to life without parole before the ruling didn't have to be re-sentenced.

That means if Partlow had murdered Williamson in Miami, he would still be serving his original sentence.

But the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, which has jurisdiction in Jacksonville, has gone the other way. It ordered Partlow re-sentenced along with Tyree Rashad Washington, who was 16 when he participated in the 2010 shooting death of another teen during a marijuana robbery in Fort Walton Beach.

Lawyers for one of the most infamous teen killers in recent Jacksonville history are holding off asking for a retrial because of the uncertainty over retroactivity.

Tom Fallis, attorney for Joshua Phillips, said he hasn't asked for a re-sentencing yet because he wants the Florida Supreme Court to break the tie between the Miami and Tallahassee appeals courts.

Phillips was 14 when he killed 8-year-old neighbor Maddie Clifton in 1998. After a massive weeklong search, police discovered Maddie's body under a water bed in Phillips' home.

"We originally thought the Supreme Court decision would give us an automatic re-sentence," Fallis said. "But the Miami decision has changed that."

Fallis said he's moving forward with a motion that Phillips' trial attorney, the late Richard Nichols, did not properly represent him. That motion will ask for a new trial.

He will pursue a request for a new sentencing if the Florida Supreme Court says the ruling is retroactive.

Moorehead said he disagrees with the Miami ruling and expects the Florida and U.S. supreme courts to rule in favor of retroactivity if it ever gets that far.

"If you read the Supreme Court case it's abundantly clear that this ruling was meant to be retroactive," Moorehead said.

FUTURE PUNISHMENT

The appeals court offered no guidance on what Partlow's new sentence should be. The Florida Attorney General's Office, which defended the original sentence before the court, has asked for a re-hearing in front of all 1st District Court of Appeal judges.

The Attorney General's Office argues that the original decision of the appeals court makes it unclear how the re-sentencing should occur. It also expressed the concern that judges will assume they may not sentence juveniles to life without parole in any situation. …

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