Twice in four years, the musical chair-prone Florida Supreme Court has upended death penalty cases, so far affecting three of them in Flagler County alone. A decision in 2016 ended up favoring two defendants, whose death sentences were commuted to life in prison. A decision last week declared much of the 2016 decision erroneous, and may end up disfavoring Cornelius Baker, who was scheduled to go on trial for a second sentencing on Feb. 24 in Bunnell.
The prosecution, with the defense’s agreement, is asking Circuit Judge Margaret Hudson to delay or hold the case “in abeyance” as both sides sort through the meaning of the Supreme Court decision, which in the prosecution’s reading is “calling into question the necessity of a new penalty phases for cases such as” Baker’s.
That would be bad news for Baker, whose death row status could then remain unchanged.
Baker was found guilty of kidnapping and murdering Elizabeth Uptagrafft in 2007, discarding her body in the Mondex after kidnapping her from her home in Volusia. A jury recommended death, splitting 9-3. In 2016 the Florida Supreme Court ruled that death penalty recommendations had to be unanimous, and the following year granted Baker a new penalty-phase trial–the trial set to start on Feb. 24. But on Jan. 23, and with three new members on the bench, the Florida Supreme Court reversed that 2016 precedent, ruling that unanimous juries are not necessary after all.
In the meantime, the Legislature in 2017 passed a law, which then-Gov. Rick Scott signed, requiring unanimous verdicts. The law does not address retroactivity. But the Supreme Court, following the 2016 decision, did so in further opinions in December 2016, drawing the line at cases from 2002 on. Baker fell in that window. But if the 2016 decisions are now moot, Baker falls into a different sort of window–the pre-2017 era, when, the Supreme Court now says, unanimous verdicts should not have been required.
In essence, Baker may be looking at being relegated back to death row even after the law changed to require unanimous verdicts. His public defenders will almost certainly argue otherwise, but the prosecution will just as likely argue that the re-sentencing should be put to rest, and Baker kept on death row.
There is no question that Baker’s 2008 sentence fits the Supreme Court’s latest standard for eligibility for the death penalty: he was found guilty by a unanimous jury of both first degree murder and felony murder, as well as home invasion robbery with a firearm, kidnapping and aggravated fleeing and eluding. To the prosecution, there was, therefore, a unanimous finding on at least one aggravator already. Given last week’s ruling, the prosecution is arguing in its latest motion, “the State may be entitled to seek reinstatement of the death penalty previously imposed by the trial court in this case.”
Both sides are asking for more time. Hudson hasn’t ruled, but will likely address the issue at a scheduled pre-trial on Feb. 3, when Baker himself is expected to be in court. He had declined to be present at a previous pre-trial.
The two men whose death sentences were commuted to life in prison following the 2016 decision are William Gregory and David Snelgrove. Gregory had murdered his ex-girlfriend Skyler Dawn Meekins, 17, and her boyfriend, Daniel Arthur Dyer, 22, as they slept in Meekins’s grandparents’ house in Flagler Beach in 2007. After a new sentencing-phase trial was ordered, the state opted not to go through with it in order not to inflict the trauma of a re-trial on the victims’ families, and Gregory was sentenced to life. Snelgrove went through his penalty re-trial earlier this month–his third since he murdered Glyn and Vivian Fowler, in Palm Coast’s B-Section 20 years ago. A jury recommended life in prison.
Snelgrove’s re-trial had gone through the usual, innumerable procedural steps and delays. Had it been delayed a month more or so, Snelgrove would have been in Baker’s shoes, possibly out of luck for a reversal. As it is, he slipped through to commutation, exactly nine days before the Florida Supreme Court changed its mind.