Florida Supreme Court lets stand dozens of death sentences, including 11 from the First Coast

Jacksonville, FL — Almost a dozen men sentenced to death because of crimes committed on the First Coast have had those penalties upheld by the Florida Supreme Court.

The Court denied appeals relating to sentences for 30 cases in the past three days- including nine from Duval, one from Clay, and one from St. Johns- following their latest ruling that continues to refine Florida’s death penalty sentencing process.

This all started in early 2016, when the US Supreme Court ruled Florida's death penalty sentencing scheme unconstitutional through the Hurst case. At the time, the ruling was based on the fact that juries recommended a sentence, but were only advisory, and the judge issued the final decision. The state legislature passed a new law to address that, but then the Florida Supreme Court struck that down, saying a unanimous jury must now be required in order to impose the death penalty.

That ruling, which came in October 2016, left open the question of what would happen with inmates on death row who had been sent there by a non-unanimous vote. That became more clear at the end of 2016.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled in December 2016 that any death penalty imposed by a non-unanimous jury that became final before the 2002 Supreme Court case known as Ring would stand, because it was based on the understanding of the law at the time. In Ring, the High Court ruled Arizona's death penalty sentencing scheme was unconstitutional, and while Florida's law was discussed, there was nothing explicitly ordered for the state at the time. In the Hurst ruling, the Supreme Court determined Ring did, in fact, apply to Florida- hence the creation of that case as the dividing line. Subsequently, as appeals have been coming before the state's high court, non-unanimous death sentences imposed and finalized after Ring have been sent for a new sentencing phase, while those pre-Ring have stood.

The latest wrinkle that led the Florida Supreme Court to put pending appeals on hold was Hitchcock. In this case, the defendant argued that Hurst meant his non-unanimous death sentence was unconstitutional under both Florida and the US Constitution, even though it was finalized in 2000. The Florida Supreme Court ruled in August 2017 that they had consistently upheld the standard they had put in place, and as such, the defendant was not entitled to a new sentencing phase.

With Hitchcock settled, in the last three days alone the Florida Supreme Court has denied appeals from 30 death row inmates. Eleven of those inmates are from the First Coast.

Clay County 

Donald Bradley- sentenced to death for the 1995 murder of Jack Jones. He was also convicted of burglary in connection to this crime. The wife of Jones propositioned Bradley to intimidate and assault him but make it look like a home invasion, in response to an affair Jones was having with a teen girl. Bradley got two brothers- Brian and Patrick McWhite- to help, telling them it would be an assault. Bradley’s assault with a “war stick” and gun left Jones with injuries he ultimately died from. The brothers and Jones’ wife, Linda, were arrested as well. The jury recommended death for Bradley 10-2.

St. Johns County

John Marquard- sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of Stacy Willets. He was also convicted of armed robbery in connection to this crime. Marquard, Willets, and Mike Abshire drove from North Carolina to Florida, where they were all planning to move. The two men had talked about killing Willet for her car and money before leaving North Carolina, and while stopped in South Carolina, Marquard said he was going to kill her. In St. Augustine, the men lured Willet into the woods by telling her she was invited to a party, and ultimately Marquard stabbed her and pushed her face into a puddle until she stopped breathing. The two then tried to sever her head from her body. Abshire was also convicted and was sentenced to life. The jury recommended death for Marquard by 12-0

Duval County 

Pressley Alston- sentenced to death for the 1995 murder of James Lee Coon. He was convicted of other crimes in connection to this, including robbery with a deadly weapon, kidnapping, and more. Coon was last seen after visiting his grandmother at a Jacksonville hospital. Alston and his half-brother, Dee Ellison, were both arrested, and Alston confessed, saying they had planned a robbery a few days prior, but couldn’t find anyone to rob. A day later, they saw Coon, got in his car, took his watch and cash, and then fatally shot him. The jury recommended death for Alston 9-3.

Marvin Jones- sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of Monique Stow. He was also convicted of the attempted murder of Ezra Stow in connection to this crime. Jones bought a used car from Ezra Stow and wrote a check for the vehicle and repairs, knowing it would bounce. Stow’s daughter, Monique, called Jones to arrange payment, and Jones agreed to come by to give the money. Instead, he fatally shot Monique while she was in the restroom, and shot Stow when he reached for his own gun. The jury recommended death for Jones by 9-3.

Jason Stephens- sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of 3-year-old Robert Sparrow III. He was also convicted of kidnapping, several counts of armed robbery, and other charges in connection to this crime. Stephens and several accomplices, including Horace Cummings and others who were never apprehended, broke in to the home of a man to steal money and marijuana. The toddler and many other people were in the home at the time, and they were held hostage by Stephens and his accomplices. When they left, Stephens took the toddler as “insurance” and left him in a car in a sunny area. He was found dead hours later. The medical examiner testified the toddler died from asphyxiation, but could not rule out hyperthermia. The jury recommended death for Stephens by 9-3.

Ronald Clark Jr.- sentenced to death for the 1990 murder of Ronald Willis. He was also convicted of armed robbery in connection to this crime. Clark and another man, John Hatch, were hitchhiking, when Willis pulled over to pick them up. Clark ordered Willis to pull over, and then fatally shot Willis. The men dumped the victim’s body in a ditch, used his stolen car to drive around doing things through the night, and then retrieved the body, weighted it, and dumped it in the water off the Nassau County Sound Bridge. Hatch was caught in Nassau County and Clark was caught in South Carolina. The jury recommended death for Clark by 11-1.

Etheria Jackson- sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of Linton Moody. Moody and his brother owned a furniture shop, and he had gone to Jackson’s home to get a payment for a washing machine from Jackson’s live-in girlfriend. Jackson assaulted Moody, had his girlfriend take Moody’s wallet and keys, choked him unconscious, hit him, and stabbed him multiple times. Jackson and his girlfriend hid the body in carpet and put that in the victim’s vehicle. Some of the stolen money was used to buy cocaine. The jury recommended death for Jackson by 7-5.

Gregory Kokal- sentenced to death for the 1983 murder of Jeffrey Russell. Kokal and William O’Kelly picked up Russell, who was hitchhiking, and drove to a Jacksonville Beach park where they beat Russell with a pool cue and robbed him. Russell was then fatally shot. The jury recommended death for Kokal by 12-0.

William Sweet- sentenced to death for the 1990 murder of 13-year-old Felicia Bryant. Sweet was also convicted of attempted murder and armed burglary in connection to this crime. Sweet is one of three men who had robbed and physically accosted a woman in her apartment, and the other two men had been identified. The victim asked a neighbor if her two daughters- including Felicia- could stay with her, and the neighbor agreed. The other daughter heard a loud kick overnight. She later saw someone pulling on the screen in the living room, and ultimately, they all saw Sweet outside. They alerted the girls’ mother, who came over, but as they all attempted to leave, Sweet forced his way in and opened fire, hitting the initial victim and Felicia. The jury recommended death for Sweet by 10-2.

Steven Taylor- sentenced to death for the 1990 murder of Alice Vest. Taylor was also convicted of burglary and sexual battery in connection to this crime. Vest’s body was found in her bedroom, and the phone line to her home had been severed. She had been sexually assault, stabbed about 20 times with a knife and scissors, strangled, and hit with a metal bar and candlestick, among other things. Taylor and Gerald Murray were arrested for the crime, which Taylor said was a burglary gone badly. The jury recommended death for Taylor by 10-2.

William Thomas- sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of Rachel Thomas, his wife. Thomas was also convicted of burglary and kidnapping in connection to this crime. Thomas planned to kidnap and kill his wife to avoid paying his portion of their impending divorce settlement. He beat her and tied her up and took her from the scene by vehicle, and she was never seen again. A friend of Thomas, Douglas Schraud, was involved in the kidnapping and was convicted. Thomas also received a life sentence for the murder of his mother, Elsie Thomas, with the motive to keep her from talking to police about his wife’s murder. The jury recommended death for Thomas by 11-1.

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