GREEN COVE SPRINGS – It was just five days after Christmas 1997, when police discovered Shannon Holzer’s body in a wooded area near her abandoned car, partially clothed and riddled with nine stab …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – It was just five days after Christmas 1997, when police discovered Shannon Holzer’s body in a wooded area near her abandoned car, partially clothed and riddled with nine stab wounds.
Holzer had been on her way to deposit money from her place of employment, Buddy Boy’s, a small convenience store in St. Johns County, when she offered to give a ride to John Calvin Taylor II to Green Cove Springs to retrieve a rental car.
Several co-workers saw Taylor in her vehicle. She dashed away their concerns.
He “was harmless,” she said. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Police discovered six stab wounds in her heart the following afternoon and another three in her lungs. According to state records, a forensic pathologist at the trial concluded each stab could have been fatal, and that Taylor made the initial wound while Holzer was sitting in her car. What police didn’t find was the $6,000 co-workers said she was on her way to deposit.
Taylor had that. He deposited $1,700 into his bank account, went to a local bar and racked up a tab buying random patrons drinks. He tipped the bartender two $100 bills on a $200 tab and left.
Police arrested Taylor the next day for an unrelated burglary in his mobile home. He was in boxer shorts at the time.
On those shorts, police found bloodstains that matched Holzer’s DNA.
Two years later, a jury sentenced Taylor to death. It was a split jury, a 10-2 decision. Now, 20 years later, Taylor and other Clay County murderers will see a resentencing due to retroactive changes in Florida’s death sentence.
The changes stem from the outcome of the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as Hurst vs. Florida.
The case established that Florida’s current death sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because it limited juries to an advisory role, which violated inmate’s trial by an impartial jury promised under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Previously, Florida courts decided capital punishment by a simple majority. Now, states are required to impose the death penalty by a unanimous jury.
This ruling applies retroactively, meaning even 20-year-old cases decided by a non-unanimous jury will now go back to lower courts for a new penalty phase.
Another Clay County murder case that will get a resentencing hearing in the wake of the Hurst decision is that of David James Martin of Jacksonville, who was convicted in the 2008. Martin was convicted of bludgeoning Jacey McWilliams, 24, and dumping her body in a wooded area near Middleburg. He was given the death penalty after a jury voted 10-2 and not unanimously.
Criminal justice experts say that of the 395 prisoners currently on Florida’s death row, nearly 150 of them qualify for resentencing hearings under Hurst.
Of those, 35 of them are within the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Clay, Duval and Nassau counties.
“I’ll use one word – chaos,” said retired Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan of Miami in describing what the aftershock of the Hurst ruling in Florida. “It’s just a mess.”
Prosecutors, some of whom argued these cases years prior, will resentence the cases with a new jury while maintaining their normal caseload.
Each of these cases must be reinvestigated and presented in full by both the prosecution and the defense.
Because these cases will receive new penalty phases exclusively, jurors will not decide on guilt, rather jurors will decide on the punishment.
The state recognizes a life sentence if even one juror votes no to capital punishment.
Fourth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson said she has already heard new mitigating factors and evidence from defense attorneys arguing older cases while the state goes through the process of identifying which cases they will again seek capital punishment on, and which and they will commute to life sentences.
The Hurst ruling may also effect current proceedings. In late April 2016, the State of Florida filed a notice to seek the death penalty in the case of Bobbi Lee White and her husband Joseph Lloyd White for the alleged murder of a Jacksonville man whose remains investigators found inside a torched van in Jennings State Forest.
Last July, Bobbi’s attorney filed a motion to block the state from pursuing the death penalty due to the change in death penalty guidelines.
Joseph’s public defender has yet to file any such motion.
While the State Attorney’s Office has not yet identified even a cursory price attached to these coming proceedings, Nelson said the figure will be significant.
“Each [case] will be slightly different...but I think after we go through one, we will have a high figure associated with the cost of resentencing,” Nelson said.
While taxpayers might pay the price for the Hurst ruling, Nelson said survivors and loved ones of the dead will pay the true cost.
“We are calling them sometimes 30 – in one case 40 years – in many cases 20 years after the fact, and explaining what this new law means and walking them through the process,” Nelson said. “They deserve, and obviously the community deserves, for us to make timely decisions – but certainly the next of kin do.”
The State Attorney’s Office will complete preliminary decisions on which Hurst-qualified cases they will seek the death penalty on by Saturday.