The unanimous decision —- a rarity in death penalty cases in which convictions are overturned —- came amid intense scrutiny of the death penalty in Florida. The state's high court last week struck down a portion of a new death penalty law as unconstitutional because it does not require unanimous jury recommendations for the sentence to be imposed.
Jacob John Dougan, Jr., now 69, was convicted in the 1974 murder of Stephen Orlando, an 18-year-old white man, whose body was found in Jacksonville Beach accompanied by a note signed by the "Black Revolutionary Army."
Thursday's 58-page opinion upheld a lower court's ruling that Dougan should receive a new trial because of "multiple significant problems" in his trial, including the false testimony of a key witness who was a co-defendant in the case and who had received a plea deal in exchange for testifying against Dougan.
The court also found that Dougan's lawyer, Ernest Jackson, had two conflicts of interest "that adversely affected his performance" during the trial. Jackson had an extramarital affair with Dougan's sister and represented two other co-defendants in their appeals.
The lower court found that Jackson "essentially presented no defense" during the guilt phase of Dougan's trial.
Dougan, considered a leader in the black community before his 1975 conviction, was resentenced to death three times before Thursday's decision ordering a new trial.
"Clearly, this is a case of many tragedies. It is tragedy for the family of the young man who was murdered. It is a tragedy that over 40 years have passed since the murder occurred, of which Dougan has spent most of those years on Death Row. He now faces a retrial where he may be released from Death Row or even acquitted. It is a tragedy that Dougan, a young man with so much potential, was possibly involved in this murder that was motivated by racial hatred. It would be overly simplistic, however, to characterize this murder and trial merely as a byproduct of an earlier time when Jacksonville was dealing with deep wounds of past racial discrimination," Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in a concurring opinion.
Dougan's sentence should have been reduced to life imprisonment, Pariente wrote, agreeing with three dissenters in a 1992 Florida Supreme Court decision that upheld his death sentence.
"Justice is at times an elusive word, but by granting Dougan a new trial, we restore some small measure of justice to remedy the injustices that occurred at the time of his original trial," Pariente concluded.
In a separate ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court ordered an evidentiary hearing for Death Row inmate Frank Walls, convicted in the 1987 murders of two people in an Okaloosa County home.
The 5-2 majority opinion ordered the hearing to consider Walls' claim that his intellectual disability should make him ineligible for the death penalty.
The new hearing is necessary, the majority decided, because of a seminal U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Hall v. Florida. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Florida's use of a "rigid" IQ score in determining whether defendants should be shielded from execution because they are intellectually disabled.
Prior to the decision in Hall, a defendant with an IQ above 70 could not present evidence regarding two other portions of a three-pronged test — - adaptive functioning deficits and manifestation before the age of 18 — - used to determine whether defendants are intellectually disabled.
The majority in Thursday's Florida Supreme Court ruling relied on what is known as the "Witt analysis" to decide whether the Hall decision should be applied retroactively to other inmates. Under Witt, a change in the law is applied retroactively if it is issued by the Florida or U.S. Supreme courts, is constitutional in nature and "constitutes a development of fundamental significance," something the majority found the Hall decision accomplished.
"The rejection of the strict IQ score cutoff increases the number of potential cases in which the state cannot impose the death penalty, while requiring a more holistic review means more defendants may be eligible for relief," the majority opinion said.
The judge who sentenced Walls, now 49, found that he had been classified as emotionally handicapped, suffers from brain dysfunction and brain damage and functions intellectually at the level of a 12-year-old.
But in a stinging dissent Thursday joined by Justice Ricky Polston, Justice Charles Canady wrote that the Hall decision should not be applied to Walls' case.
Walls is unable to satisfy one of the conditions of the test for intellectual disability because his IQ scores were 102 at age 12 and 101 at age 14, Canady wrote.
"Based on these IQ scores, Walls could not establish that he met the third prong of the test for intellectual disability, which requires that the condition be 'manifested during the period from conception to age 18,' " he wrote.
The dissenters also argued that the Hall decision should not be applied retroactively because it did not result in a "jurisprudential upheaval," but instead was an "evolutionary refinement" of Florida's death penalty law.
Applying the Hall ruling retroactively presents an "ongoing threat of major disruption to the application of the death penalty" in the state, Canady wrote.
The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a new trial for a convicted killer who has spent more than four decades on Death Row for a racially charged murder during civil unrest in the Jacksonville area.