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Supreme court overturns murder conviction

Posted on December 20, 2010 3:00 AM EST

The Florida Supreme Court reviewed and overturned a first degree murder case based on an underlying cocaine trafficking charge. A jury convicted the defendant, Santo Hernandez, of first degree felony murder. The state alleged that the defendant was responsible for the shooting death of two individuals also involved with cocaine trafficking. Miami criminal lawyers argued on behalf of the state and on behalf of the defendant to the Supreme Court which ruled that the prosecution failed to prove that the defendant was guilty of cocaine trafficking, but was rather only guilty of cocaine possession with intent to sell. The ruling of the high court mandated that the lower tribunal could only sentence the defendant to 3rd degree felony murder as opposed to first degree felony murder. First degree felony murder is punishable by death or a life sentence while the maximum a defendant can be sentenced for third degree murder is 15 years.

To find someone guilty of first degree felony murder, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person died as a consequence of and while the defendant was engaged in the commission of or attempting to commit an enumerated offense, or escaping from the scene where the offense was committed. The victim must have been an innocent bystander at the time of his or her death. If one of the co-defendants was killed during the commission of the enumerated offense, then the state will have to proceed on second degree felony murder charges. The enumerated offenses listed under the Florida Statutes include some of the following: drug trafficking, arson, sexual battery, robbery, kidnapping, escape, aggravated child abuse, carjacking, home invasion robbery, aggravated stalking and resisting an officer with violence.

When the Supreme Court held that the defendant was not properly convicted of drug trafficking, the first degree felony murder conviction was not legal and therefore the conviction was overturned. Cocaine trafficking requires the state to prove that a defendant knowingly sold, purchased, manufactured, delivered or possessed in excess of 28 grams of cocaine. The potential sentences for all drug trafficking cases increase the larger the amount of drugs seized by law enforcement authorities. A defendant convicted of possession of less than 28 grams of cocaine can only be charged with possession or possession with intent to sell the illegal substance. The charge will depend how the drug was packaged.

Because the Supreme Court held that the jury could not have properly convicted the defendant of drug trafficking, the state lost the enumerated underlying offense. Based on their finding that the state failed to adequately prove that the defendant was in possession of more than 28 grams of cocaine, the trafficking conviction was improper and ruled that the only correct verdict could have been on the charge of third degree murder. While appeals are not often granted, this appeal allowed for the defendant to someday leave prison. In the State of Florida, a person convicted of a life sentence will spend the rest of his or life in prison as parole no longer exists in this state.

Florida Supreme Court Reduces Conviction in Hialeah Double Murder, Miami Herald.com, December 10, 2010.
Categories: Appeals