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Supreme Court of Florida
RONALD LEE BELL, JR.,
STATE OF FLORIDA,
[November 7, 2002]
We have on appeal the judgment and sentence of the trial court imposing the
death penalty upon Ronald Lee Bell, Jr. We have jurisdiction. See art. V,
§ 3( b)( 1), Fla. Const. For the reasons expressed below, we affirm Bell's
convictions but reduce the sentence of death on this seventeen-year-old to life
imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
A. GUILT PHASE 1
Ronald Lee Bell, Jr., was found guilty by a jury of first-degree murder with a
deadly weapon and armed kidnaping with a weapon. Bell was seventeen years and
ten months of age at the time that these crimes were committed. He lived with his
parents and was a high school senior. The victim of both crimes was Cordell
Richards and the crimes occurred on February 2 and 3, 1999. The testimony at
trial detailed the following sequence of events.
On March 4, 1999, Richards' decomposing body was found in a wooded
area at the end of a cul-de-sac in an undeveloped portion of a housing subdivision
in Okaloosa County. Richards' remains, which were partially skeletonized and
burned, were tied to a tree with a chain and a rope.
Dr. Michael Berkland, the medical examiner, inspected the remains at the
scene and then performed the autopsy. Dr. Berkland found that the body was in an
advanced state of decomposition and that there were multiple fractures to the head,
which were the result of blunt force trauma. He also found injury to the victim's
shoulder blade, sternum, ribs, arm and wrist. Based upon the burn patterns, Dr.
Berkland concluded that the burning occurred post-mortem. Dr. Berkland also
concluded that the manner of death was homicidal violence with combined features
of blunt force trauma to the head, body, and upper extremities, and probable chop
injury to the left neck. 2
1. Maestas was convicted at trial of first-degree murder and was sentenced
to life imprisonment. According to the sentencing order, Maestas was sixteen at
the time of the crime and the State did not seek the death penalty against her.
2. Maestas stated that she decided to testify at Bell's trial in the hope that she
might gain some benefit in a future clemency petition. In exchange for Lincks's
testimony at Bell's trial, the State allowed her to plead guilty to manslaughter and
false imprisonment with a deadly weapon, with a maximum sentence of fifteen
years. Lincks was fifteen years old at the time of the crime.
Kimberly Maestas, Renee Lincks, and Bell were all charged with the murder
of Richards. 1 Maestas and Lincks testified against Bell, and the testimony
regarding the events leading up to the homicide of Richards came primarily from
them. 2 At the time of the homicide, Bell, who was seventeen, and Maestas, who
was sixteen, had been dating for a few months. Maestas had been "kicked out" of
her parents' home. Maestas and Bell met Richards through a newspaper listing
advertising a place to live, and Maestas moved into the extra bedroom in Richards'
apartment. Richards was thirty-one years of age.
Maestas testified that after she moved into Richards' apartment, Richards
made inappropriate sexual advances. Richards would come into Maestas's room
wearing only bikini underwear. One time Richards propositioned her for sex.
Maestas testified that when she said "no," Richards grabbed her shoulders and
pushed her against the wall. She started to cry and asked him not to do that. 3
3. Sometime prior to the crime, Bell and Maestas bought a chain, a rope,
and a lock.
Richards pushed her against the wall a second time and she hit her head. Maestas
testified that Bell found out about Richards' attack when he saw the bruises on
Lincks, who was fifteen, was a friend of Maestas, and came to the apartment
to spend the night with her. That night, Richards asked Maestas and Lincks if they
wanted to sleep with him in his bed. This made Maestas and Lincks
uncomfortable, and so Lincks called a friend, who took them to Bell's house. Bell
later took Maestas and Lincks back to Richards' apartment and left a baseball bat
with them in case something happened. Later, Richards called Maestas and Lincks
from his bedroom telephone and made statements that upset them, so they paged
Bell and he came to the apartment to help them.
When Bell entered the apartment, he confronted Richards about his behavior
towards Maestas and Lincks. Bell and Richards started pushing one another. Bell
placed Richards in a choke hold and Richards lost consciousness. Bell told Lincks
to get the bat and she gave it to Maestas. Maestas hit Richards in the legs with the
bat. Bell told Lincks to get a rope from his car 3 and a blanket from Richards' bed. 4
Richards was tied with the rope, rolled in the blanket and placed in Bell's car. Bell
then drove to a wooded area at the end of a cul-de-sac.
Maestas held the flashlight while Bell and Lincks carried Richards into the
woods. At some point they stopped, and Bell told Maestas to shine the flashlight
in Richards' face while Lincks asked Richards for his PIN numbers. Bell then told
Maestas to hit Richards with the baseball bat, which she did, and Richards asked
Bell not to kill him. Lincks also hit Richards with the baseball bat. According to
Maestas and Lincks, Bell told them that they were not hitting Richards hard enough
and so Bell hit Richards very hard and said, "Look, I'm Babe Ruth." They then
carried Richards deeper into the woods and tied and chained him to a tree.
Maestas testified that Bell poured lighter fluid on Richards and set Richards on fire
while he was still alive and groaning.
Bell returned to the scene a few more times. He first returned later that day
with Maestas and Lincks to make sure that Richards was dead. Bell and Lincks
went into the woods while Maestas waited at the car. Bell and Lincks could hear
Richards yelling for help. When Bell and Lincks returned to the car, Lincks told
Maestas that Bell had tried to break Richards' neck. They left the scene and drove
to a Target store where they bought a meat cleaver and duct tape and then returned
to Richards' location. Bell and Lincks went back into the woods, where Bell cut 5
Richards' throat. The two then returned to Maestas five or ten minutes later. Bell
went back to the body again after he and Lincks decided that Bell had not cut
Richards' throat enough.
That night, a friend of Bell's came over and helped to forge checks on
Richards' account. A few days later, they pawned Richards' television and violin.
About a week after that, Bell, Maestas and Maestas's fourteen-year-old sister went
to Richards' location again. Richards was dead at this time. Bell poured gasoline
on the body and started a fire.
On February 13, 1999, the police went to Richards' apartment to check on
Richards' whereabouts after one of Richards' friends told the police that he had
been unable to contact Richards. The officers tried to get the attention of anyone
who might be in the apartment by pounding on the doors and windows. When no
one responded, one of the officers entered the apartment through a window. One
of the bedroom doors was secured with a deadbolt lock and a towel was stuffed
underneath the door. The officers knocked on the bedroom door and Bell opened
it. Maestas was in a sleeping bag on the floor. Bell and Maestas appeared to be
just waking up. They denied knowing anything about Richards' whereabouts. 6
After the State presented its case, Bell waived his right to present evidence
and his right to testify. The jury thereafter found Bell guilty of first-degree murder
with a deadly weapon and armed kidnaping with a weapon.
B. PENALTY PHASE
At the penalty phase, the State presented no additional evidence. Bell
presented the testimony of his father and grandfather, as well as school and jail
records. Bell's father, Ronald Bell, Sr., who is a youth pastor, testified that Bell
was an usher at his church and vice president of the youth district association. He
also said that Bell was a high school senior who planned to join the Air Force to
become an electrician. In addition, Bell's father testified that Bell attended school
regularly and had maintained several jobs, which contributed to the family's income.
Bell's grandfather, Austin Lee Bell, who is a minister, testified that while
growing up, Bell spent weekends with him and his wife and that Bell's grandmother
was a strict disciplinarian. He said that during Bell's visits to his house, Bell would
attend his grandfather's church and participate in youth activities.
The jury recommended the death penalty by a vote of twelve to zero. The
trial court imposed a sentence of death, finding the following five statutory
aggravators: (1) the capital felony was committed during a kidnaping; (2) the 7
capital felony was committed to avoid arrest; (3) the capital felony was committed
for pecuniary gain; (4) the capital felony was heinous, atrocious or cruel (" HAC");
and (5) the capital felony was committed in a cold, calculated, and premeditated
manner (" CCP"). The trial court also found one statutory mitigator--Bell's age of
seventeen years and ten months at the time of the crime (little weight)--and seven
nonstatutory mitigators: (1) disparate treatment of codefendants Lincks and
Maestas (little weight); (2) Bell was a good student (little weight); (3) Bell was a
model prisoner while awaiting trial (very little weight); (4) Bell had a good family
support system (little weight); (5) Bell was active in church (slight weight); (6) Bell
was gainfully employed for various periods of time, and had the potential to finish
high school and further his education (some weight); and (7) Bell has a very
supportive extended church family (little weight). The trial court found that the
aggravators outweighed the mitigators and agreed with the jury's unanimous
decision in favor of the death penalty. 8
4. Bell claims that (1) the trial court erred in allowing the prosecutor during
his guilt-phase rebuttal closing argument to accuse defense counsel of telling the
jury not to follow the law and that the prosecutor levied an improper personal
attack against defense counsel; (2) the trial court erred in failing to give proper
consideration and weight to Bell's age of seventeen at the time of the crime; (3) a
death sentence for offenders under the age of eighteen is unconstitutional; (4) the
trial court erred in improperly considering the aggravator that the homicide was
committed to avoid arrest; and (5) imposition of the death sentence in the absence
of notice of the aggravating circumstances to be considered or of jury findings on
the aggravators and death eligibility violates due process and the protection against
cruel or unusual punishment or both.
On appeal, Bell now raises one guilt-phase and four penalty-phase issues. 4
Although Bell does not raise the issue of sufficiency of the evidence on appeal, we
have independently reviewed the evidence in this case and we conclude that the
evidence is sufficient to support the convictions. See Sexton v. State, 775 So. 2d
923, 933-34 (Fla. 2000); Brown v. State, 721 So. 2d 274, 277 (Fla. 1998) (citing §
921.141( 4), Fla. Stat. (1997)).
A. GUILT PHASE CLOSING ARGUMENT
Bell raises one claim of error during the guilt phase: that a portion of the
prosecutor's closing argument constituted an improper personal attack on defense
counsel. He also asserts in connection with this argument that the trial court erred 9
in allowing the State to accuse defense counsel of telling the jury not to follow the
Bell relies on our recent decision in Brooks v. State, 762 So. 2d 879, 904-05
(Fla. 2000), to support his argument that the State personally attacked the defense
and told the jury not to follow the law. However, unlike Brooks, in this case the
State's closing argument remarks were in response to a defense argument that the
jury should give Bell the same sentence that a codefendant received. Therefore, the
argument was not an improper personal attack on defense counsel but a response
to defense counsel's own argument to the jury. Even if there was error in this case,
we would conclude that these isolated comments were harmless beyond a
reasonable doubt. Accordingly, we reject Bell's claim on this issue.
B. CONSIDERATION AND WEIGHT GIVEN TO
BELL'S AGE OF SEVENTEEN AT THE TIME OF THE CRIME
In its sentencing order, the trial court found Bell's age at the time of the crime
to be a mitigating factor and gave the mitigator little weight. On appeal, Bell now
contends that the trial court was laboring under an erroneous legal standard when
finding and weighing Bell's age as a mitigator. At the sentencing hearing, the court
also discussed the nonstatutory mitigator of the disparate treatment of codefendant,
Renee Lincks. In particular, the court stated: 10
This Court determines that the Office of the State Attorney could not have
legally sought the death penalty against co-defendant Renee Lincks as she
was fifteen years of age at the time the crimes were committed, and therefore,
it is constitutionally impermissible to apply the death penalty to a fifteen year
old. Further, the Office of the State Attorney did not seek the death penalty
in the trial of co-defendant Kristal Maestas, and therefore, her sentence of life
in prison was the only sentence open to this Court.
After the trial court completed the sentencing, the State advised the court as
STATE: Judge, your order, I think, contains a misstatement of the law, in
that after the arrest of these individuals, the Court found that it
was unconstitutional to execute a minor under the age of
seventeen. You stated under the age of sixteen. COURT: Fifteen.
STATE: Under the age of seventeen. In other words anyone that hasn't
reached their seventeenth birthday cannot receive the death
penalty. The Supreme Court changed the law after Maestas was
arrested, and we were legally precluded from seeking the death
penalty for Maestas. COURT: Okay, I thought it was just Lincks you were precluded from.
STATE: I didn't want to upstage you or anything here, but I wanted to
state for the record that that's the law and give you an
opportunity to amend your order.
COURT: All right, I'll make a written amendment. Is that agreeable with
The trial court thereafter made that handwritten change in the sentencing order to
the section marked "non-statutory mitigating factors: The disparate treatment of
co-defendant Renee Lincks" and the Court announced the change orally to Bell. 11
This Court has determined that the death penalty is cruel or unusual if
imposed on a defendant under the age of seventeen. See Brennan v. State, 754 So.
2d 1, 7 (Fla. 1999). Although the trial court initially was incorrect with regard to the
constitutionally permissible age of execution, that error was corrected when the
State brought the error to the trial court's attention. Thus, the trial court's statement
about the legal age of execution did not improperly affect the weight it accorded to
This Court has determined that "[ t] he relative weight given each mitigating
factor is within the discretion of the sentencing court." Trease v. State, 768 So. 2d
1050, 1055 (Fla. 2000). However, in Urbin v. State, 714 So. 2d 411, 418 (Fla.
1998), we stated that "the closer the defendant is to the age where the death penalty
is constitutionally barred, the weightier [the age] statutory mitigator becomes."
Further, in Ellis v. State, 622 So. 2d 991, 1001 (Fla. 1993), the Court stated:
Whenever a murder is committed by one who at the time was a minor,
the mitigating factor of age must be found and weighed, but the weight
can be diminished by other evidence showing unusual maturity. It is
the assignment of weight that falls within the trial court's discretion in
Although the Court in Ellis acknowledged that the assignment of weight falls
within the trial court's discretion, when the statutory mitigator is age and the 12
defendant is a minor that discretion is limited. Indeed, the Ellis Court also stated
that "there must be some evidence tending to support the finding of unusual
maturity. Otherwise, the mitigating factor of age must be accorded full weight as a
statutory mitigating factor." Id. at 1001 n. 7 (emphasis supplied). The Court noted
that if the trial court were to have unbridled discretion in the application of the age
mitigator, then in effect the trial court would have the ability to exclude everyone
from the category. See id. at 1001. According to Ellis, "nothing in the statute
reflects any intention that a court should have discretion to render the statute
applicable to no one at all." Id. Thus, the trial court must afford the mitigating
factor of age "full" weight, unless the trial court makes a finding of unusual
maturity. See id. It is only after a trial court makes a finding of unusual maturity
that the trial court can exercise discretion in assigning diminished weight to the
In this case the trial court did not find that Bell was unusually mature.
Rather, the trial court stated that "there was not evidence of record that [Bell] was
abused, neglected or not provided with a normal, healthy environment and
supported by loving parents." Thus, although there was no evidence of abuse or
neglect, there was likewise no finding by the trial court of "unusual maturity." The
only finding the trial court made on this mitigator was that Bell's childhood was 13
normal. Moreover, to the extent that Bell displayed positive characteristics in that
he was active in church, did well in school, and maintained steady jobs, we note
that these characteristics tend to reflect the lifestyle of a normal, healthy seventeen-year-
old, rather than the unusual lifestyle of a teenager "old in the ways of the
world." Shellito v. State, 701 So. 2d 837, 843 (Fla. 1997) (assigning little weight to
the statutory age mitigator and relying on evidence of the eighteen-year-old
defendant's extensive crime record, which started at age thirteen, involved twenty-two
arrests, thirty separate crimes, and eight felony convictions, to find that the
defendant was, "[ a] lthough young in years. . . old in the ways of the world").
Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in assigning little
weight to this mitigator.
C. AVOID ARREST AGGRAVATOR
In its sentencing order, the trial court found that the State had proven the
avoid arrest aggravator beyond a reasonable doubt. On appeal, Bell contends that
avoiding arrest was not his dominant motive in killing Richards because his motive
for killing Richards was his anger over Richards' sexual harassment of Maestas and
Richards' assault on her when she rebuffed his sexual advances.
This Court has held that in order "[ t] o establish the avoid arrest aggravating
factor where the victim is not a law enforcement officer, the State must show 14
beyond a reasonable doubt that the sole or dominant motive for the murder was the
elimination of a witness." Connor v. State, 801 So. 2d 598, 610 (Fla. 2001), cert.
denied, 122 S. Ct. 2308 (2002); see also Alston v. State, 723 So. 2d 148, 160 (Fla.
1998). "Mere speculation on the part of the state that witness elimination was the
dominant motive behind a murder cannot support the avoid arrest aggravator.
Likewise, the mere fact that the victim knew and could identify defendant, without
more, is insufficient to prove this aggravator." Looney v. State, 803 So. 2d 656,
676 (Fla. 2001) (citation omitted), cert. denied, 122 S. Ct. 2678 (2002); see also
Consalvo v. State, 697 So. 2d 805, 819 (Fla. 1996).
The State contends that the record evidence establishes that Bell's sole or
dominant motive for murdering Richards was to avoid arrest. In particular, the
State argues that by the nature or manner of the killing itself, Bell's dominant motive
was eradicating signs of the assault and torture to which he had subjected Richards.
Our review of the record, however, indicates that there is insufficient
evidence to support the trial court's conclusion that the State proved the avoid
arrest aggravator beyond a reasonable doubt. Although the State's theory regarding
Richards' murder is possible, it is equally plausible that Bell's motive for killing
Richards was premised upon Bell's anger at Richards because of his attack on
Maestas. Moreover, as Bell contends, the two cases relied upon by the trial court, 15
Hall v. State, 614 So. 2d 473 (Fla. 1993), and Preston v. State, 607 So. 2d 404
(Fla. 1992), are distinguishable because in those cases, no other reasonable motive
could be inferred from the evidence. See Hall, 614 So. 2d at 477 (" Here, the
evidence leaves no reasonable inference except that Hall and Ruffin killed the victim
to eliminate the only witness . . . ."); Preston, 607 So. 2d at 409 (" The only
reasonable inference to be drawn from the facts of this case is that Preston
kidnapped Walker from the store and transported her to a more remote location in
order to eliminate the sole witness to the crime."). Accordingly, we determine that
the trial court's finding of the avoid arrest aggravator was error.
D. PROPORTIONALITY OF BELL'S DEATH SENTENCE
Although not argued by Bell as a separate point on appeal, this Court has an
independent duty to review the proportionality of Bell's death sentence as
compared to other cases where the Court has affirmed death sentences. See
Jennings v. State, 718 So. 2d 144, 154 (Fla. 1998). In Urbin v. State, 714 So. 2d
411, 416-17 (Fla. 1998), we summarized the scope and obligation of our death
In performing a proportionality review, a reviewing court must
never lose sight of the fact that the death penalty has long been
reserved for only the most aggravated and least mitigated of
first-degree murders. State v. Dixon, 283 So. 2d 1, 7 (Fla. 1973). See
also Jones v. State, 705 So. 2d 1364, 1366 (Fla. 1998) (reasoning that 16
"[ t] he people of Florida have designated the death penalty as an
appropriate sanction for certain crimes, and in order to ensure its
continued viability under our state and federal constitutions 'the
Legislature has chosen to reserve its application to only the most
aggravated and unmitigated of [the] most serious crimes. '") (footnote
omitted). Proportionality review "requires a discrete analysis of the facts,"
Terry v. State, 668 So. 2d 954, 965 (Fla. 1996), entailing a qualitative
review by this Court of the underlying basis for each aggravator and
mitigator rather than a quantitative analysis. We underscored this
imperative in Tillman v. State, 591 So. 2d 167 (Fla. 1991):
We have described the "proportionality review"
conducted by this Court as follows:
Because death is a unique punishment, it is
necessary in each case to engage in a
thoughtful, deliberate proportionality review
to consider the totality of circumstances in a
case, and to compare it with other capital
cases. It is not a comparison between the
number of aggravating and mitigating
Porter v. State, 564 So. 2d 1060, 1064 (Fla. 1990). The
requirement that death be administered proportionately
has a variety of sources in Florida law, including the
Florida Constitution's express prohibition against unusual
punishments. Art. I, § 17, Fla. Const. It clearly is
"unusual" to impose death based on facts similar to those
in cases in which death previously was deemed improper.
Id. Moreover, proportionality review in death cases rests
at least in part on the recognition that death is a uniquely
irrevocable penalty, requiring a more intensive level of
judicial scrutiny or process than would lesser penalties.
Art. I, § 9, Fla. Const.; Porter. 17
. . . Thus, proportionality review is a unique and highly
serious function of this Court, the purpose of which is to
foster uniformity in death-penalty law.
Id. at 169 (alterations in original) (citations and footnote omitted).
As we have repeatedly explained, "[ a] proportionality review involves
consideration of the totality of the circumstances of a case and comparison of that
case with other death penalty cases." Snipes v. State, 733 So. 2d 1000, 1007 (Fla.
1999) (emphasis added). As in Snipes, another case involving the death penalty
imposed on a seventeen-year-old, when we compare the totality of the
circumstances of this case to other similar cases, we conclude that a sentence of
death is inappropriate.
We acknowledge the multiple aggravators in this case; however, we note that
we have stricken the avoid arrest aggravator. Further, although we acknowledge
that CCP and HAC have been established because of the length of time that the
actual murder took to accomplish, we conclude that the mitigation in this case is
substantial--mindful in particular that Bell was seventeen years of age at the time of
the crime, which is as close as one can be in Florida to the age at which the death
penalty is constitutionally barred. In addition, we also note the mitigating
circumstance found by the trial judge of the disparate treatment of the
codefendants. Indeed, in conjunction with the great weight given to the age 18
mitigator, we find it significant that all of the defendants involved were teenagers
attempting to confront a decidedly adult situation.
Of particular note is the life sentence given to Bell's girlfriend Maestas.
Maestas appears to have been not only the instigator behind the series of events
that culminated in the murder but also appears to be equally culpable for the murder
itself. Indeed, it was Maestas, who was living on her own after being "kicked out"
of her parents' home, who initially called Bell to complain of Richards' improper
sexual advances. That phone call by Maestas resulted in Bell actually seeing the
bruises on Maestas's back made by Richards. The next night it was Maestas who
paged Bell to come to the apartment to help them after Richards asked both
Maestas and her friend Lincks to sleep in his bed.
Bell then confronted Richards about his behavior. Although it was Bell who
placed the victim in a choke hold, it was Maestas who first hit Richards with the
baseball bat. It is apparent that Maestas was involved from the beginning to the
end, including having purchased the chain, rope, and lock with Bell and
participating with Bell throughout the crime. Moreover, this version of the events
comes solely from Maestas and Lincks, who would have obvious reasons to
discount their culpability. 19
Yet we do not base our conclusion regarding proportionality solely on the
disparate treatment of the codefendants. In evaluating the totality of circumstances
we begin with the age mitigator. With regard to the age mitigator, as we have
explained above, the trial court abused its discretion in affording Bell's age of
seventeen only little weight. Without a finding of unusual maturity, this statutory
mitigator should have been given great weight. In addition, we point to the
following additional mitigators found by the trial court: disparate treatment of
codefendants Lincks and Maestas; Bell was a good student; Bell was a model
prisoner while awaiting trial; Bell had a good family support system; Bell was active
in church; Bell was gainfully employed for various periods of time, and had the
potential to finish high school and further his education; and Bell had a very
supportive extended church family.
In any event, while our proportionality review involves a comparison with
other similar cases where the death penalty has been imposed, Bell's age and the
unique circumstances of Bell's background make a comparison with our cases
more difficult. The only other cases where the death penalty has been upheld for
seventeen-year-olds are Bonifay v. State, 680 So. 2d 413, 414 (Fla. 1996), and
LeCroy v. State, 533 So. 2d 750, 758 (Fla. 1988). We do not find the totality of
the circumstances of this case similar to either of those cases. 20
In Bonifay, the seventeen-year-old defendant was convicted of first-degree
murder, armed robbery, and grand theft. The trial court found three aggravating
circumstances: (1) the capital felony was committed while Bonifay was engaged in
a robbery; (2) the capital felony was committed for pecuniary gain; and (3) the
capital felony was committed in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner
without any pretense of moral or legal justification. See 680 So. 2d at 415 n. 1. The
trial court found the following statutory mitigators: (1) Bonifay had no significant
history of prior criminal activity (very little weight), and (2) Bonifay's age of
seventeen at the time of the crime (some weight). See id. at 415 n. 2. In addition,
the court found several nonstatutory mitigating circumstances including: (1)
Bonifay experienced a less-than-ideal family background (some weight); (2)
Bonifay exhibited good behavior while incarcerated (little weight); (3) Bonifay had a
potential for rehabilitation (some weight); and (4) Bonifay was remorseful about the
death of the victim (some weight). See id. However, as we explained in Snipes,
"the defendant in Bonifay had admitted involvement in several prior crimes, one of
which was a prior burglary in which someone was stabbed several months prior to
the murder. Further, not only was the defendant in Bonifay hired to commit the
murder; when the murder actually occurred, Bonifay callously killed the wrong
person." 733 So. 2d at 1008. 21
Likewise, in LeCroy, 533 So. 2d at 755, the seventeen-year-old defendant
was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of robbery
with a firearm. He appealed a sentence of death on one count of first-degree
murder. The judge found three aggravating factors: (1) previous conviction of
another capital felony or of a felony involving the use or threat of violence to the
person; (2) capital felony committed while the appellant was engaged in the
commission of robbery with a firearm; and (3) capital felony committed for the
purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest. See id. at 755. In mitigation, the
judge found that (1) the appellant had no significant history of prior criminal
activity; and (2) the appellant was seventeen years of age at the time of the murder.
In this case, we have a seventeen-year-old who committed a heinous and
atrocious crime; however, that is where the similarity with either Bonifay or LeCroy
ends. Neither Bonifay nor LeCroy involved the disparate treatment of the
codefendants as a mitigator. Also absent from Bonifay and LeCroy is the evidence
of substantial mitigation in the form of the positive attributes Bell exhibited up until
this particular murder. We consider the evidence that Bell was an usher at his
church, vice president of the youth district association, a high school senior whose
plan after graduation was to enter the Air Force, and that he attended school 22
regularly and maintained several jobs, which contributed to the family's income to
be in his favor rather than work against him. Common sense dictates that Bell's
positive attributes should make it less likely that we would uphold the imposition of
the death penalty on this seventeen-year-old. Therefore, we conclude that the
mitigation in this case is more compelling than in either LeCroy or Bonifay.
If anything we find this case more similar to Snipes, 733 So. 2d at 1007-08,
where we vacated the death sentence of a seventeen-year-old, and to Cooper v.
State, 739 So. 2d 82 (Fla. 1999), where we reduced the death sentence of an
eighteen-year-old to life. See id. at 85 (vacating death sentence where three
aggravators were weighed against substantial mitigation including brain damage and
youth). In this case, we conclude that the statutory mitigator that Bell was
seventeen years of age is an extremely significant factor that, together with the other
mitigation, renders the death penalty disproportionate.
Because we conclude that Bell's sentence of death should be reduced to life,
we deem it unnecessary in this case to address the constitutionality of the death
penalty as applied to offenders under the age of eighteen (issue 3) and the
constitutionality of Florida's death penalty scheme (issue 5). Accordingly, we
affirm Bell's convictions but reduce Bell's sentence to life imprisonment without the
possibility of parole. 23
It is so ordered.
ANSTEAD, C. J., and PARIENTE and QUINCE, JJ., concur.
PARIENTE, J., concurs with an opinion, in which ANSTEAD, C. J., concurs.
SHAW, J., concurs in result only.
HARDING, Senior Justice, concurs in part and dissents in part with an opinion, in
which WELLS and LEWIS, JJ., concur.
NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION, AND
IF FILED, DETERMINED.
PARIENTE, J., concurring.
I concur in affirming Bell's conviction and I concur in reducing the sentence
of death to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for this seventeen-year-
old. I would, however, hold that the imposition of the death penalty upon
Bell--who was a juvenile at the time of the offense--is not only disproportionate in
this case, but is also unconstitutional as applied to seventeen-year-olds.
This case involves a brutal, senseless crime committed by a high school
senior with an above-average academic record, an above-average school attendance
record and what appears from the record before us to have been a normal healthy
environment supported by loving parents. There is no evidence that Bell was either
physically or emotionally abused, or neglected. His parents and grandparents were
active in their local church; indeed, his grandfather was a minister and his father was
a youth pastor. Bell himself was active in his church, serving as an usher and vice 24
president of the youth district association. In my view, these factors should not be
held against him; instead, these factors should weigh in Bell's favor when deciding
whether we can or should uphold the imposition of the death penalty.
Perhaps nothing ever explains how someone this young and with this type of
rather exemplary background can commit as heinous and as wicked an act as that
which occurred in this case, and there is no mental health testimony to help us to
understand it. We know that many juveniles who commit crimes go on to live
productive lives. Bell's crime will not allow for that possibility because he will
spend the rest of his life in prison, and I agree with that outcome. Perhaps one day
Bell will explain to all of us what went wrong so we can help prevent this type of
extreme violence from being committed by others his age. Cf. Nelson v. State, 748
So. 2d 237, 246-47 (Fla. 1999) (Pariente, J., specially concurring) (concurring in
upholding the death penalty but noting that although "an understanding of what
went wrong in this eighteen-year-old's life might not have saved Nelson from the
imposition of the death penalty, it could provide valuable insight into how, through
early intervention and prevention efforts, the outcome might be altered for other
children who have been neglected and abused--before it is too late").
We are faced with an unusual case; a case so unusual that I am unable in
good conscience to compare it to other cases where the death penalty has been 25
imposed on adults. Moreover, because the death penalty has been imposed so
rarely on seventeen-year-olds, I can find no basis to properly perform our
constitutionally mandated proportionality review other than to note--as the plurality
opinion has done--that this case is significantly different from the two other cases
involving seventeen-year-olds in which we have upheld the death penalty.
My only disagreement with the plurality opinion is that, rather than decide this
case solely on proportionality, I would also recede from LeCroy v. State, 533 So.
2d 750 (Fla. 1988), in light of this State's more recent precedent in which we have
concluded that the death penalty is unconstitutional as applied to fifteen-and
sixteen-year-olds. In LeCroy, this Court held "that there is no constitutional bar to
the imposition of the death penalty on defendants who are seventeen years of age at
the time of the commission of the offense." Id. at 758. However, based upon the
Court's subsequent decisions and analysis in Brennan v. State, 754 So. 2d 1, 5-6
(Fla. 1999), and Allen v. State, 636 So. 2d 494, 497 (Fla. 1994), I conclude that the
imposition of the death penalty on a seventeen-year-old also constitutes cruel or
unusual punishment and that at this time the constitutional line should be drawn at
the age of majority, eighteen.
In Brennan, this Court held that "the imposition of the death sentence on [the
defendant], for a crime committed when he was sixteen years of age, constitutes 26
5. I note that on November 5, 2002, the voters approved an amendment to
the Florida Constitution to change the language of Article I, Section 17 from "cruel
or unusual" to "cruel and unusual." The effect of that change in language on any
future decisions regarding the death penalty is an issue that is clearly not before us
at this time.
cruel or unusual punishment in violation of article I, section 17 of the Florida
Constitution." 5 754 So. 2d at 5-6. In reaching this conclusion, the Court was
guided by its decision in Allen, in which the Court found the death penalty to be
unconstitutional if imposed upon one who was under the age of sixteen at the time
of the crime. See Brennan, 754 So. 2d at 6. The Court's reasoning in Allen was as
[M] ore than half a century has elapsed since Florida last executed one
who was less than sixteen years of age at the time of committing an
offense. In the intervening years, only two death penalties have been
imposed on such persons, and both of these later were overturned.
There may be a variety of reasons for this scarcity of death
penalties imposed on persons less than sixteen years of age. There
may be public sentiment against death penalties in these cases, or
prosecutors may simply be convinced that juries would not
recommend death or the judge would not impose it. We need not
conduct a straw poll on this question, in any event. Whatever the
reasons, the relevant fact we must confront is that death almost never
is imposed on defendants of Allen's age.
In sum, the death penalty is either cruel or unusual if imposed
upon one who was under the age of sixteen when committing the
crime; and death thus is prohibited by article I, section 17 of the
Florida Constitution. Tillman v. State, 591 So. 2d 167, 169 n. 2
(Fla. 1991). We cannot countenance a rule that would result in some
young juveniles being executed while the vast majority of others are
not, even where the crimes are similar. Art. I, Sec. 17, Fla. Const. 27
Brennan, 754 So. 2d at 6 (quoting Allen, 636 So. 2d at 497) (alterations in original).
The Court then continued:
In reaching our decision in Allen, we relied on article I, section
17 of the Florida Constitution, and not on either the Eighth
Amendment of the United States Constitution or the United States
Supreme Court's decision in Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U. S. 815,
838, 108 S. Ct. 2687, 101 L. Ed. 2d 702 (1988), which held that
execution of a defendant who was fifteen at the time of the crime was
prohibited by the Eighth Amendment of the United States
Brennan asserts that our reasoning in Allen compels the same
result here. We agree. In this case, the defendant presented the trial
court with unrefuted data that at least since 1972, more than a quarter
of a century ago, no individual under the age of seventeen at the time
of the crime has been executed in Florida. In fact, our research
reveals that the last reported case where the death penalty was
imposed and carried out on a sixteen-year-old defendant was Clay v.
State, 143 Fla. 204, 196 So. 462 (1940), over fifty-five years ago.
Since 1972, the death penalty has been imposed on only four
defendants, other than Brennan, who were sixteen at the time of the
crime. For each of the three defendants whose appeals have already
been decided, the death sentence was vacated. See Farina v. State,
680 So. 2d 392, 398-99 (Fla. 1996); Morgan v. State, 639 So. 2d 6, 8
(Fla. 1994); Brown v. State, 367 So. 2d 616, 625 (Fla. 1979). This case
is virtually identical to Allen both because of the infrequency of the
imposition of the death penalty on juveniles age sixteen at the time of
the crime and because, since 1972, each death sentence imposed on a
defendant who was sixteen at the time of the crime has been
overturned by this Court. Thus, we agree that our decision in Allen
interpreting the Florida Constitution compels the finding that the death
penalty is cruel or unusual if imposed on a defendant under the age of
6. See LeCroy v. State, 533 So. 2d 750 (Fla. 1988); Bonifay v. State, 680
So. 2d 413 (Fla. 1996).
7. The death sentence of a second seventeen-year-old, Nathan Ramirez, was
vacated and remanded for a new trial because of a guilt-phase issue and thus we
did not address the death sentence. See Ramirez v. State, 739 So. 2d 568 (Fla.
1999). There is one additional case in which a notice of appeal has been filed but
no briefs have been filed. See St. Clair v. State, No. SC02-149 (Fla. notice of
appeal filed Jan. 22, 2002).
Brennan, 754 So. 2d at 7 (footnotes omitted). Thus, in Brennan, the Court
determined that the case demonstrated "the dilemma posed by Allen: that death is
almost never imposed on defendants who are Brennan's age and when the death
sentence has been imposed, the death sentence has been subsequently vacated."
Brennan, 754 So. 2d at 11.
In the case of seventeen-year-olds, for more than a quarter of a century no
person who was under the age of eighteen at the time of the crime has been
executed in Florida. During that same time period, although there have been fifteen
persons sentenced to death for crimes that they committed when they were
seventeen years old, only two have survived appellate review. 6 Indeed, in the
fourteen years since LeCroy, Bonifay is the only death penalty case in which this
Court has upheld the death penalty as applied to a seventeen-year-old. 7
Considering the infrequency in which the death penalty has been imposed on 29
minors and upheld in this State, in my view it would constitute cruel or unusual
punishment to impose the death penalty on this seventeen-year-old.
There is no dispute that the facts of the crime Bell committed are--to say the
least--horrible. Nonetheless, based upon this Court's analysis in Brennan and Allen,
I would recede from LeCroy on this issue and instead hold that the death penalty is
unconstitutional as applied to defendants who were under the age of eighteen at the
time of the crime.
ANSTEAD, C. J., concurs.
HARDING, Senior Justice, concurring in part and dissenting in part.
I agree with the majority's decision to affirm Bell's conviction. However, I
would follow the decisions of both the trial court and the unanimous jury and affirm
Bell's sentence of death. I reach this conclusion because I believe the plurality
impermissibly reweighs the age mitigator found by the trial court in this case and
relies on a flawed proportionality analysis in reducing Bell's sentence to life
I disagree with the plurality's conclusion that the trial court abused its
discretion in assigning "little weight" to Bell's age at the time he committed this
murder. As the plurality concedes, it is well established that the relative weight 30
given each mitigating factor is within the discretion of the sentencing court. See
Elledge v. State, 706 So. 2d 1340, 1347 (Fla. 1997) (stating that the "weight
assigned to a mitigating circumstance is within the trial court's discretion"); see also
Ellis v. State, 622 So. 2d 991, 1001 (Fla. 1993) ("[ T] he assignment of weight [of
age mitigator] . . . falls within the trial court's discretion."). Therefore, in order for
Bell to be successful in his claim, he must show that "no reasonable [person] would
take the view adopted by the trial court." Elledge, 706 So. 2d at 1347.
Moreover, we have recently stated, "[ T] he trial court's conclusions as to the
weight of mitigating circumstances will be sustained by this Court if the conclusions
are supported by sufficient evidence in the record." Horst v. State, 819 So. 2d
689, 697 (Fla. 2002) (citing Mansfield v. State, 758 So. 2d 636, 646 (Fla. 2000),
and Ferrell v. State, 653 So. 2d 367, 371 (Fla. 1995)). Nonetheless, the plurality all
but ignores the trial court's findings and the record evidence in this case to
impermissibly reweigh the mitigating factor and, ultimately, leap to the conclusion
that Bell's age should be given "great weight" and label it "an extremely significant
factor." Plurality op. at 19, 23.
In Urbin v. State, 714 So. 2d 411 (Fla. 1998), upon which the plurality relies,
this Court stated:
[I] t is the patent lack of maturity and responsible judgment that
underlies the mitigation of young age . . . . This is especially true when 31
there is extensive evidence of parental neglect and abuse that played a
significant role in the child's lack of maturity and responsible
Id. at 418 (citation omitted). Contrary to Urbin, the record in this case provides
sufficient evidence of Bell's maturity and ability to make responsible decisions in
order for this Court to sustain the trial court's weighing of this mitigating factor.
Bell's father testified that Bell was a "youth pastor" and usher, and that Bell
assumed the position of "vice president of the youth district association." Bell
"attended school regularly," had an above-average academic record, and had
maintained several jobs while "contribut[ ing] to the family's money." Bell "loved to
work," but quit work to focus on his school studies. In sum, Bell had a level of
maturity that allowed him to work, make money, drive his own vehicle, and care for
some of his own needs. Just as importantly, the record is totally devoid of any
evidence indicating any kind of abuse or neglect or any instability in Bell's
upbringing. On the contrary, Bell's father testified that he and Bell's mother had
been married for twenty years, and Bell had been raised in the same location. Bell's
grandfather also testified that Bell would attend his grandfather's church and that
Bell "always" had a roof over his head and lived in a "nice neighborhood."
Indeed, the circumstances of this case are unlike those cases where this
Court has found that the trial court abused its discretion in giving "little weight" to 32
the defendant's age at the time of the crime. For example, in Ramirez v. State, 739
So. 2d 568 (Fla. 1999), this Court reviewed the claim that the trial court abused its
discretion in giving "little weight" to the age mitigator where the defendant was
seventeen at the time of the murder. Id. at 581-83. This Court did find an abuse of
discretion, but did so principally because there was "uncontroverted testimony of
defendant's emotional, intellectual and behavioral immaturity. Id. at 582. The
evidence in Ramirez revealed that the defendant "had the emotional, intellectual and
behavioral maturity of a thirteen-or fourteen-year-old, and suffered from learning
disabilities that evidenced an "organic problem in his brain," and the defendant also
had an unrebutted history of inhaling chlorofluorocarbons. Id. at 582. There is no
such evidence in the instant case. Cf. Horst v. State, 819 So. 689 (Fla. 2002)
(finding trial court did not abuse its discretion in assigning age mitigator "very little
weight" where eighteen-year-old defendant worked, owned car, performed
adequately in school, and helped take care of younger children in family).
Given the testimony concerning Bell's active church leadership, regular
school attendance, ability to maintain outside work responsibilities, and the lack of
any evidence concerning emotional, intellectual, or behavioral immaturity, I would
find there is sufficient record evidence to support the trial court's finding that the
mitigating factor of Bell's age should be given "little weight." As this Court stated 33
in Shellito v. State, 701 So. 2d 837 (Fla. 1997), "Because the trial judge was in the
best position to judge [the defendant's] emotional and maturity level, on this record
we will not second-guess his decision to . . . assign [the defendant's age] only slight
weight." Id. at 843-44. Indeed, based on the record before us, the plurality has not
demonstrated that "no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the trial
The plurality's suggestion that the trial court afforded this mitigator little
weight without explanation is without foundation. See plurality op. at 12. The trial
court did provide an explanation as to why it afforded this mitigator little weight:
Although Ronald Lee Bell, Jr., at the time of this crime, was two
months shy of his eighteenth birthday, there is no evidence of record
that he was abused, neglected or not provided with a normal, healthy
environment and supported by loving parents.
Sentencing Order at 14. Moreover, throughout the trial court's twenty-two page
sentencing report, there are numerous references to the court's assessment of Bell's
maturity and judgment. For example, the court found that "defendant Bell was
capable of adhering to rules, regulations and laws and could successfully control
his behavior in an educational environment"; Bell was "gainfully employed,
provided volunteer assistance to his elderly grandparents"; "the defendant knew
right from wrong"; and "he clearly knew right from wrong and had the capacity to
not engage in the despicable behavior which resulted in the death of Cordell 34
8. There is no requirement that the court make a finding of unusual maturity.
Richards." Sentencing Order at 17-20. The trial court also noted that Bell "was
clearly the leader and dominate [sic] actor . . . and that co-defendants Maestas and
Lincks were females who unfortunately followed in the actions and words of the
defendant." Sentencing Order at 15-16.
The plurality also asserts that because there was "no finding by the trial court
of 'unusual maturity, '" the court abused its discretion in assigning little weight to the
age mitigator in this case. Ellis, however, upon which the plurality relies in making
this assertion, specifically states:
Whenever a murder is committed by one who at the time was a minor,
the mitigating factor of age must be found and weighed, but the weight
can be diminished by other evidence showing unusual maturity. It is
the assignment of weight that falls within the trial court's discretion is
622 So. 2d 1001. In this case, the trial court did exactly what is prescribed by Ellis.
That is, because Bell committed the murder while he was a minor, the trial court
properly "found and weighed" the mitigating factor of age.
Upon weighing this factor, Ellis also permits that the weight can be
diminished by "other evidence showing 'unusual maturity. '" 8 I would submit that
the record evidence in this case concerning Bell's active church leadership, regular
school attendance, above-average academic performance, assumption of out-of- 35
the-home work responsibilities, and a stable and nurturing upbringing, is exactly the
type of evidence demonstrating the maturity which Ellis contemplates.
Just as importantly, and contrary to the conclusion reached by the plurality,
there is nothing in Ellis- or in any other case or statute of this State- which
necessarily requires that a trial court afford an age mitigator "great weight" or deem
it "an extremely significant factor" where the defendant is below the age of majority,
yet still death penalty-eligible. Accordingly, and for the reasons stated above, I
would find that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in affording the age
mitigating factor in this case "little weight."
Next, despite the existence of four aggravators, the heinous nature of this
crime which caused considerable and prolonged suffering to the victim, and the
lack of any mental or sociological mitigation, the plurality concludes that the death
penalty imposed by the trial court in this case is disproportionate. I disagree.
First, the plurality erroneously relies on "the disparate treatment of the
codefendants" as a basis for finding Bell's sentence disproportionate. There is no
legal basis for this assertion. In Farina v. State, 801 So. 2d 44 (Fla. 2001), cert.
denied, 122 S. Ct. 2369 (2002), this Court held that a codefendant's less severe
sentence was "irrelevant to" a defendant's proportionality review in a capital case, 36
where the codefendant was under the age of seventeen at the time of the murders
(thus ineligible for a death sentence) and therefore "aggravation and mitigation in
their cases are per se incomparable." Id. at 56 (affirming death sentence of
eighteen-year-old defendant where sixteen-year-old codefendant who fired fatal
shot only received life sentence).
In this case, Bell's codefendants, Kimberly Maestas and Renee Lincks, were
only ages sixteen and fifteen, respectively, at the time this crime was committed,
and thus, like the codefendant in Farina, also ineligible for the death penalty.
Therefore, according to Farina, the less severe sentences received by the
codefendants in this case are irrelevant to Bell's proportionality review because the
aggravation and mitigation in their cases is per se incomparable, i. e., death was not
a valid punishment option for either of the codefendants in this case. Accordingly,
the plurality's reliance, at least in part, on the disparate treatment of the
codefendants in reaching its conclusion that Bell's sentence is disproportionate has
no legal basis.
Moreover, and notwithstanding this legal bar to a finding of disparate
treatment for purpose of a proportionality review in this case, a further defect in the
plurality's proportionality analysis is its conclusion that Bell's sixteen-year-old
girlfriend, Kimberly Maestas, "appears to be equally culpable for the murder." 37
9. At Wal-Mart, Bell provided the money to buy a "chain, a rope, and a
lock" to be used for killing the victim. When Bell decided that it was time for the
murder, Bell put the victim in a headlock, which Bell maintained until the victim was
unconscious. Bell instructed Maestas to get a baseball bat and then Bell told
Maestas and Lincks to hit the victim with it, which they did. Bell directed the use
of a blanket to wrap up the victim and the use of rope to tie up the victim.
Bell used his car to transport the victim to the remote scene of his death.
Bell backed his car to the apartment door in order to put the victim in the trunk, and
Bell and Lincks carried the victim to the trunk and stuffed him in it. Bell determined
the wooded location where the victim would be taken and then drove the victim
there in the trunk of his (Bell's) car. In the woods, when the victim begged Bell,
"Please don't kill me" and moaned and mumbled, Bell told Maestas to hit the victim
with the baseball bat. Bell incited Maestas to action by reminding her, "Who hurt
you?" Bell told Maestas that she was not hitting the victim hard enough with the
bat, then Bell told Maestas to give the bat to Lincks, and after Lincks hit the victim
several times, Bell directed that the bat be given to him, and Bell hit the victim hard
a number of times, at one point referring to himself as "Babe Ruth" before striking
the victim with the bat. Bell squirted lighter fluid "all over" the victim, including his
head and face; the victim was still alive and groaned; the lighter fluid was then lit,
resulting in the victim screaming.
At Bell's insistence "to make sure he was dead," Bell, Maestas, and Lincks
returned to the wooded location where they had left the victim beaten and in flames.
At the wooded location, upon hearing the victim calling for help and asking "who's
there," Bell tried to break the victim's neck. Bell drove to Target, and at about 9: 45
a. m., Bell paid for duct tape and a meat cleaver to finish off the victim. Bell
returned to the wooded site, and Bell slit the throat of the victim, resulting in the
victim giving a "very small shout." Bell returned to the car and stated that he
Plurality op. at 19. Indeed, Maestas may have, as the plurality asserts, "called Bell
to complain of Richards' improper sexual advances" and been "involved from the
beginning to the end." Plurality op. at 19. However, her role was relatively minor
compared to that of Bell's, and the record is replete with instances showing Bell's
micromanagement of the murder. 9 Bell's horrible actions included beating the 38
"didn't slit his throat deep enough," then returned again to the victim's location and
again slit the victim's throat. Bell pawned or sold items of the victim's personal
property (a television, violin, and perhaps a computer). Bell participated in cashing
forged checks using the victim's bank checks. Indeed, when Bell pawned the
victim's property, Bell successfully represented himself as age eighteen by
presenting his driver's license with a crack over the age and representing his birth
year as 1980, rather than correctly as 1981. Although the plurality questions the credibility of the codefendants' testimony
in this case, determining the credibility of witnesses is within the province of the
jury. See Carter v. State, 560 So. 2d 1166, 1168 (Fla. 1990) (noting that credibility
of accomplice's version of murder is question for jury). Thus, it is the jury's duty
to weigh the evidence and resolve any factual conflicts, and its findings will not be
disturbed on appeal absent a clear showing of error. See Jent v. State, 408 So. 2d
1024, 1028 (Fla. 1981). It is not within the province of this Court to pass on the
credibility of a witness presented at trial. After hearing all of the evidence in this
case, the jury voted unanimously twelve to zero in favor of the imposition of a
death sentence and thus clearly chose to believe the codefendants' version of the
victim with a baseball bat, pouring lighter fluid on the victim's face and lighting it
while the victim was still alive and groaning, trying to break the victim's neck with
his own hands, and slitting the victim's throat twice- on two different occasions.
As the trial court opined, Bell "was clearly the leader and dominate [sic] actor in the
kidnaping and murder of Cordell Richards," and it was Bell who "clearly struck the
fatal blow with the meat cleaver." See Sentencing Order at 15-16.
For these reasons, the plurality's attempt to distinguish LeCroy v. State, 533
So. 2d 750 (Fla. 1988), and Bonifay v. State, 680 So. 2d 413 (Fla. 1996), on the
basis of disparate treatment of the codefendants is without merit. The law and the 39
record both clearly establish there has been no disparate treatment in this case.
Moreover, in LeCroy, even though the trial court found three aggravating
circumstances in a case involving a defendant exactly the same age as Bell when he
committed the murder and despite the trial court giving "great weight" to the age
mitigating factor (as the plurality attempts to do in this case), this Court nonetheless
upheld the defendant's death sentence. See LeCroy, 533 So. 2d at 758. Like the
court in this instance, the trial court found that the evidence showed the defendant
"understood the distinction between right and wrong and the nature and
consequences of his actions." Id. at 755-56. It should also be noted that the
murder in LeCroy was accomplished by gunshot and therefore did not involve the
protracted beating, burning, and cutting of the victim- and resulting suffering- as
did this case.
[T] he legislature intended that youth and its potential characteristics be
considered as a factor by the jury and the sentencing judge in
determining whether a youthful defendant should be subject to the
death penalty. It does not suggest an intention to draw an arbitrary
bright line between those who are eighteen years of age and those,
such as here, who are seventeen years of age. . . . [The sentencing
judge's] decision was consistent with the jury's advisory
recommendation of death which was also reached after considering
appellant's age and potential immaturity. It appears then that the
legislature has specifically decided that some seventeen-year-olds may
be sentenced to death and that the jury and judge in this particular case
have decided that this appellant should be sentenced to death. 40
10. Likewise, Bonifay is indistinguishable. In Bonifay, this Court upheld the
death sentence for a seventeen-year-old defendant where it found only three
aggravating circumstances and gave "some weight" to the defendant's age at the
time of the crime. See Bonifay, 680 So. 2d at 415 n. 2& 3. In Bonifay, the court
also found nonstatutory mitigators not present in the instant case, e. g., defendant's
less-than-ideal family background and defendant's cooperation with law
enforcement and good behavior while incarcerated. Moreover, the court in Bonifay
also found the defendant, like Bell, had several "positive attributes, e. g., the
defendant was remorseful about the death of the victim, and the defendant had
potential for rehabilitation. The plurality attempts to distinguish Bonifay on the
grounds that the defendant in Bonifay admitted to prior criminal involvement, even
though, unlike the instant case, the court found the statutory mitigator that the
defendant had no significant history of prior criminal activity. In this case, Bell
admitted to nothing. In fact, when police went to the victim's apartment on
February 13, 1999 (ten days after the victim was murdered), the police found Bell in
the victim's bedroom, and Bell denied knowing anything about the victim's
whereabouts. The victim's decomposed body was not found until March 4, 1999.
Finally, the plurality also attempts to distinguish Bonifay on the basis that Bonifay
"callously" killed the wrong person. See plurality op. at 21. Any argument that
Bell's actions in the protracted and torturous murder of the victim in this case was
anything but callous would be disingenuous.
Id. at 758. 10
The plurality concludes its proportionality analysis by asserting similarity
between this case and Snipes v. State, 733 So. 2d 1000 (Fla. 1999), and Cooper v.
State, 739 So. 2d 82 (Fla. 1999). I would, however, find both of these cases
distinguishable. In Snipes, while it is true this Court vacated a seventeen-year-old
defendant's death sentence, it did so where there were only two aggravating
circumstances and substantial mitigation, other than youth, related to the 41
defendant's "traumatic background." Snipes, 733 So. 2d at 1007-09. Specifically,
in Snipes the court found the defendant
was sexually abused for a number of years as a child, [and] he abused
drugs and alcohol beginning at a young age . . . . He was raised in a
dysfunctional, alcoholic family, [and] suffered childhood trauma . . . .
He also suffers emotional stress and a personality disorder due to his
early childhood. Importantly, Snipes voluntarily confessed to the
crime and told others about it, he expressed remorse, and the State
depended upon Snipes' statements to obtain a conviction against him
and a warrant against a codefendant. Additionally, the crime was
arranged by older individuals, and testimony reflected that Snipes was
easily led by older persons.
Id. at 1008. The Court also noted that, unlike the instant case, "the murder
occurred quickly and was not committed during a robbery." Id.
In reversing the death penalty in Snipes, this Court also relied on its decision
in Urbin, where it found that the "defendant's age of seventeen was particularly
compelling when coupled with the substantial impairment [e. g., drug and alcohol
abuse, dyslexia, employment history] and family neglect [e. g., lack of a father]."
Id. at 1008 (emphasis added). The present case includes fewer aggravators and
none of the mental and sociological mitigation present in Snipes or Urbin; therefore,
contrary to the plurality's assertion, Snipes is not a "similar case" upon which this
Court should rely in its proportionality analysis.
Likewise, Cooper, the other case upon which the plurality relies as similar to
the instant case, is also distinguishable. See Cooper, 739 So. 2d at 86. In Cooper, 42
11. Relatives testified to the brutality Cooper suffered as a young child at the
hands of his father. See Cooper, 739 So. 2d at 84. One of Cooper's sisters
testified that their father was an alcoholic who frequently beat the children and on
one occasion "rammed Cooper's head into the refrigerator." Id. Cooper's aunt
testified that the father frequently "whipped and beat" Cooper and threatened the
children with a gun. See id. A second sister testified that the father on one
occasion put a gun to young Cooper's head. See id.
the trial court found only three aggravating circumstances and also found two
nonstatutory mitigators not present in the instant case, i. e., low intelligence
(borderline retarded) and an abusive childhood. See id. at 84 n. 6. The court also
found evidence of brain damage and a history of seizures which caused the
defendant to have impaired judgment and poor impulse control. See id. at 83. The
defendant also scored high on tests for mental illness (including both paranoia and
schizophrenia). See id. at 86. 11 Moreover, the jury recommendation of death in
Cooper was only by an eight-to-four vote, i. e., not unanimous like the instant case.
The Court acknowledged Cooper to be "one of the most mitigated killings we have
reviewed." Id. at 86. Indeed, the same cannot be said for the instant case. The
crime Bell committed is certainly one of the most aggravated and least mitigated we
Given the impermissible reweighing of the mitigating factor of Bell's age, the
absence of any mental or sociological mitigation similar to that found in Snipes or
Cooper, and the four established aggravators resulting from Bell's heinous and 43
wicked actions in the violent and tortured death of the victim, I would instead
compare the totality of the circumstances of this case to that of LeCroy and
Bonifay, where we upheld the death sentences of seventeen-year-old defendants
with less aggravation and more mitigation than the instant case. Accordingly, I
would find Bell's death sentence proportionate and therefore affirm Bell's sentence
WELLS and LEWIS, JJ., concur.
An Appeal from the Circuit Court in and for Okaloosa County, Thomas T.
Remington, Judge -Case No. 99-528 CFA
Nancy A. Daniels, Public Defender, and W. C. McLain, Assistant Public Defender,
Second Judicial Circuit, Tallahassee, Florida,
Richard E. Doran, Attorney General, and Stephen R. White, Assistant Attorney
General, Tallahassee, Florida,
for Appellee 44