The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ordered resentencing for a Death Row inmate convicted of a 2005 murder in Broward County and said a separate hearing should be held to delve into anti-gay statements made by a juror.
Justices ordered a new sentencing hearing for inmate Eric Kurt Patrick because the jury split 7-5 in recommending the death penalty to a judge. On that issue, Thursday’s ruling was similar to numerous other cases in which justices have ordered resentencing based on a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system unconstitutional.
But justices also agreed that Patrick should receive an evidentiary hearing related to anti-gay statements made during jury selection by a man who ended up serving on the jury. Patrick’s current lawyers argued in a Supreme Court brief that his trial attorney did not properly seek to block the man from serving on the jury and that a new trial should result.
The Supreme Court opinion said the juror acknowledged he would have a bias if he knew a criminal defendant was gay.
“When asked if he would still hold the prosecutor to the proper burden of proof, he answered, ‘Put it this way, if I felt the person was a homosexual, I personally believe that person is morally depraved enough that he might lie, might steal, might kill,’ ” the Supreme Court opinion said. “The juror said ‘yes’ when asked if this bias might affect his deliberations.”
Patrick, now 55, was convicted in the September 2005 murder of Steven Schumacher after the men met at a park and went to Schumacher’s home. Patrick, who was homeless at the time, gave Schumacher a massage and the men were naked in bed when Patrick began beating the victim, according to a summary of the case included in the Supreme Court opinion. Patrick said Schumacher wanted to have anal sex but that Patrick refused — a situation that ultimately led to the fatal beating.
The Supreme Court opinion said Patrick denied being gay but that he had engaged in sexual activity with other men. Regardless, the Supreme Court pointed to potential bias in the statements made during the jury-selection process known as voir dire.
“Applying this evidence to the juror’s voir dire answers establishes that, by the juror’s own acknowledgement on the record, he was predisposed to believe that Patrick is morally depraved enough to have committed the charged offenses,” the opinion said. “Although Patrick does not identify as homosexual and indicated in his confession that his sexual activity with men was for material support rather than personal fulfillment, these points do not eliminate the bias that this juror said he would feel based on the evidence that trial counsel and the trial court knew the jury would hear during trial.”
The opinion said prosecutors contended that Patrick’s trial attorney did not block the juror for strategic reasons. But the Supreme Court said it can “neither ignore the possibility that counsel’s failure to challenge this juror was strategic nor conclude that it was.” As a result, justices unanimously ordered a lower court to hold an evidentiary hearing.
The Supreme Court also ruled 5-2, with justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissenting, that Patrick should receive a new sentencing hearing as an outgrowth of the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
That U.S. Supreme Court decision found Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries. A subsequent Florida Supreme Court ruling said juries must unanimously agree on critical findings before judges can impose death sentences and must unanimously recommend the death penalty.
The Florida court Thursday applied that to Patrick’s case, pointing to the jury’s 7-5 jury recommendation for the death penalty. After the court rulings, state lawmakers changed the death-penalty sentencing system to address the unanimity issue.
–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida