Life or death? Florida Supreme Court hears arguments on whether to reinstate Bessman Okafor death sentence

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — After issuing a bombshell decision in January about the death penalty, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in two potentially far-reaching cases about whether that decision should lead to reinstating death sentences for two convicted murderers.

Some justices appeared skeptical of arguments by lawyers in Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office, who say the January ruling should lead to reinstating death sentences for Bessman Okafor and Michael James Jackson.

Both men were initially sentenced to death but had those sentences set aside because of a 2016 Supreme Court ruling that required unanimous jury recommendations before defendants could receive the death penalty.

READ: Death sentence won’t be reinstated for man convicted of killing Orange County 19-year-old, judge says

However, the Supreme Court in January reversed key parts of the 2016 ruling, including the unanimous jury requirement.

During a virtual hearing, Assistant Attorney General Doris Meacham said Okafor should not receive a new sentencing hearing and his original death sentence should be reinstated.

“His death sentence is constitutional. To ask the lower courts to go forward with a resentencing that is no longer necessary is not justice," Meacham said.

Okafor was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for killing Alex Zaldivar in Orange County.

Attorneys for Okafor and Jackson feel the state does not have legal justification for reinstating the original death sentences. Maria DeLiberato, an attorney for Jackson, described the state’s position as a quote “hail Mary.”

“There has to be confidence in the process," DeLiberato said. "There has to be finality. There can’t be this granting the state this extra exception that capital defendants don’t have.”

It is unclear when justices will rule in the cases, but opinions are typically issued months after oral arguments are held.

News Service Florida provided this report.