Ruling may let some Florida death row inmates avoid executions

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — More than half of Florida's inmates sentenced to death may avoid execution under a far-reaching ruling handed down by the state's Supreme Court.

A sharply divided court agreed Thursday to stop blocking the execution of Mark Asay, a Jacksonville man sentenced to death in 1987 for killing two men.

The court halted Asay's execution in March after the U.S. Supreme Court found Florida's death sentencing procedure was flawed because it allows judges to reach a different conclusion from juries.

But a majority of justices have decided that all death sentences imposed before a key 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling can remain in place. This could clear executions for nearly half of the 386 inmates currently on Florida's death row, but it raises questions about the fate of other inmates.

State Attorney Jeff Ashton said courts will have to decide one-by-one whether cases finished after 2002 should get a new hearing, based on an analysis laid out.

“I was glad they wrote it the way they did. It makes it very clear,” Ashton said. “Applying the law retroactively to the cases they decided is probably fair.”

But that could mean more emotional proceedings for Rafael Zaldivar. His son Alex was killed in 2012 by Bessman Okafor, who is on death row.

“It's like reopening our wounds again. We're sick of it. Just put the guy to death,” Zaldivar said.

The state Supreme Court ruled that juries must unanimously recommend death. In Okafor's case, the vote was 11 to 1.

“We're a few days away from Christmas. This is going to be the topic and we're going to have to deal with guy again, maybe,” Zaldivar said.

Raw: Bessman Okafor sentenced to death

Ashton said most of the inmates sentenced after 2002 will probably get a new hearing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.