TALLAHASSEE – A 33-year-old Green Cove Springs man sentenced to death for the December 2008 stabbing death of his father’s live-in girlfriend will get a new trial after a 78-page ruling handed …
TALLAHASSEE – A 33-year-old Green Cove Springs man sentenced to death for the December 2008 stabbing death of his father’s live-in girlfriend will get a new trial after a 78-page ruling handed down Monday by the Florida Supreme Court.
The case involving Leo Louis Kaczmar III comes in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s May refusal to hear an appeal by State Attorney Pam Bondi on the status of Florida’s Death Penalty law. Bondi had appealed a U.S. Supreme Court ruling under a case called Hurst v. Florida. The nation’s high court ruled the Florida statute unconstitutional as Florida, up to that point, had allowed the death penalty be handed down without a unanimous jury verdict. Now, Floridians can only be given the death penalty by a unanimous vote of the lower court jury.
Kaczmar was given the death penalty on August 12, 2010 by an 11-1 vote. He was given a second death penalty sentence on August 20, 2013 after winning an appeal for a new sentencing hearing. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling only takes into account Kaczmar’s original sentence.
“Currently, we’re operating under the new death penalty statute going forward. I feel very comfortable. We’re securing unanimous death penalty recommendations post-2002, meaning Ring v. Arizona those cases will come back for re-sentencing,” Bondi said May 23 in a Tallahassee press conference.
Bondi was referring to a new Florida death penalty statute passed by the legislature in 2016 after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to change the statute mandating a unanimous verdict in order to sentence a defendant to death.
Kaczmar was found guilty of fatally stabbing 49-year-old Maria Ruiz between 90 and 100 times all over her body after a night of using cocaine and playing a pornographic film in which he attempted to coax Ruiz into having sex with him. After the stabbing, he left the house and set it on fire in an attempt to hide evidence, according to police accounts and court records.
Along with first-degree murder, he was charged with one count each of arson and attempted sexual battery, despite a medical examiner’s report that stated the woman’s body showed no signs she had been sexually assaulted. He was give concurrent sentences of 30 years for arson and 15 years for the sex crime.
“At best the prosecution proved only that he had harassed Maria Ruiz. With some persistence, he bothered her to the point that she fled to the kitchen, got a knife, and threatened him with it. At no time did he make any overt acts to show he intended to sexually batter her,” states the Florida Supreme Court ruling.
The ruling also cites the lower court “fundamentally erred” when Judge William Wilkes did not give the jury instructions on the defense called “heat of passion.” The ruled there was no premeditation on Kaczmar’s part to kill Ruiz.
“In this case, the court instructed the jury as to the defense to first-degree murder but omitted any guidance as to it also being a defense to a lesser type of homicide. That was particularly egregious here because Kaczmar’s defense was that, although he had killed Maria Ruiz, he did not have a premeditated attempt to do so. As such, the court’s failure to give the complete heat of passion instruction amounted to fundamental error,” states the ruling.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the lower court limited what Kaczmar could say in his own defense.
“There is nothing wrong with doing that, but when then court limited what the defendant could say it effectively gutted his defense that he had killed Maria Ruiz in the heat of passion,” states the ruling.
The state’s high court also ruled that state prosecutors justified seeking the death penalty in an improper manner by saying Kaczmar killed Ruiz “in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification.”
“That was error. The evidence shows that there was only rage when he killed her. The evidence, similarly shows no careful plot to kill. The State proved, at most, that the defendant wanted to have sex with her and harassed her enough until she threatened him with a knife. After the killing, he may have devised a clumsy plan to destroy evidence of what he had done, but what he did then does not show he had some prearranged plan to kill her,” states the ruling.
In the Kaczmar ruling, Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Pariente made a point to voice her opposition to split jury death penalty recommendations.
“The eleven -to-one vote on the advisory sentence may very well violate the constitutional right to a unanimous jury in light of the holding in Ring that the jury is the finder of fact on aggravating circumstances that qualify the defendant for the death penalty,” Pariente states in the ruling.
At press time, Kaczmar remained held in the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford. There is no date set yet for a new trial.