The current version of the Florida Supreme Court is no respecter of precedent. The Court recently upheld the conviction of a man for the murder of his estranged wife. In doing so, the court threw out a legal standard about circumstantial evidence in criminal appeals.
Murder of Nicole Elise Bush
In 2011, deputies from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s office went to the home of 35-year-old Nicole Elise Bush for a welfare check. The deputies found Nicole, shot six times, stabbed, and beaten with an aluminum bat. She died later at a Jacksonville hospital. Her children were at school at the time of the attack.
Following an investigation, the Sheriff’s Office obtained a warrant for the arrest of Nicole’s estranged husband, Sean Alonzo Bush. The gun and the weapon that were used to attack Nicole were never found. However, investigators developed circumstantial evidence against Bush, including a life insurance policy that named him as a beneficiary. In the absence of any better suspect, Sean Alonzo Bush with charged with the murder of his estranged wife.
Trial of Sean Alonzo Bush
Following a jury trial, Sean Alonzo Bush was convicted of first degree murder, felony murder, and burglary of a dwelling with an assault and while armed with a firearm. The jury unanimously recommended a death sentence. Circuit Court Judge Howard Maltz followed the jury’s recommendation and sentenced Bush to death.
Appeal to the Florida Supreme Court
Bush appealed his conviction to the Florida Supreme Court. The court upheld Bush’s conviction. The court pointed to the fact that Bush was in financial trouble, he was aware that he was the beneficiary of Nicole’s $815,240 life insurance policy, and he submitted a claim for the policy proceeds a few weeks after the murder. All of those facts are entirely consistent with innocence. The court nevertheless wrote, “Because a rational trier of fact could, and did, find from this evidence that Bush committed the first-degree murder of Nicole under both premeditated and felony murder theories, Bush is not entitled to relief.”
The court also took the opportunity to abandon the “special appellate standard” for circumstantial evidence that had previously been the law in Florida.
The court explained that Florida had previously used a different standard to evaluate wholly circumstantial evidence on appeal than it used in a case with some direct evidence: “Where the only proof of guilt is circumstantial, no matter how strongly the evidence may suggest guilt, a conviction cannot be sustained unless the evidence is inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence.” The court noted that this standard was confusing and also in conflict with the standard that has been adopted by all federal courts and the majority of state courts after the United States Supreme Court had called the standard into question in 1954.
The court stated that, moving forward, Florida appellate courts should use a standard like the one used in cases with some direct evidence, “whether the state presented competent, substantial evidence to support the verdict.” One might think that evidence should be more that speculative to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but the absence of evidence that Bush actually committed the murder did not appear to trouble the conservative majority.
The per curiam opinion was joined by Chief Justice Canady, and Justices Polston, Lawson, and Muniz. Justice Labarga concurred in part and descended in part, writing separately to note disagreement with the majority’s decision to abandon its circumstantial evidence standard of review.