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Court Cites Age in Death-Penalty Reversal

November 08, 2002|From Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The state Supreme Court on Thursday reversed the death sentence of a killer who was 17 when he chained a man to a tree, beat him, set him on fire and then finished him off with a meat cleaver.

In the 4-3 decision, the high court said the trial judge didn't give enough consideration to Ronald Bell's age at the time of the murder of Cordell Richards over two days in February 1999.

Bell, 21, was two months shy of his 18th birthday when he and two younger female accomplices killed Richards in revenge for what they claimed were sexual advances toward one of the girls.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled three years ago that it violated the state's constitutional protection against "cruel or unusual" punishment to execute anyone for a murder committed before their 17th birthday.

In the majority opinion, the justices said that even though a killer becomes eligible for the death penalty, youth still is an important consideration in deciding whether punishment should be life in prison or death.

Bell's age "is an extremely significant factor that, together with the other mitigation, renders the death penalty disproportionate," the court said.

The ruling did not address an appeal claim that the execution of anyone under age 18 violates the state Constitution.

In the majority opinion, Justice Barbara Pariente noted that Florida has not executed anyone for a murder committed before age 18 for more than 25 years.

"Considering the infrequency in which the death penalty has been imposed on minors and upheld in this state, in my view it would constitute cruel or unusual punishment to impose the death penalty on this 17-year-old," she wrote.

Kimberly Maestas, then 16, was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder in the death. Renee Lincks, then 15, was sentenced to 15 years for manslaughter.

Florida voters on Tuesday approved an amendment to narrow that provision in the state Constitution from "cruel or unusual" to match the U.S. Constitution, which bars "cruel and unusual" punishment.

The change would not affect the Bell case.

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