Lawrence v. State, 102920 FLSC, SC18-2061

Docket Nº:SC18-2061
Opinion Judge:PER CURIAM.
Party Name:JONATHAN HUEY LAWRENCE, Appellant, v. STATE OF FLORIDA, Appellee.
Attorney:Andy Thomas, Public Defender, and Barbara J. Busharis, Assistant Public Defender, Second Judicial Circuit, Tallahassee, Florida, for Appellant. Ashley Moody, Attorney General, and Charmaine M. Millsaps, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, for Appellee
Judge Panel:CANADY, C.J., and POLSTON, LAWSON, MUÑIZ, and COURIEL, JJ., concur. LABARGA, J., dissents with an opinion. GROSSHANS, J., did not participate. LABARGA, J., dissenting.
Case Date:October 29, 2020
Court:Supreme Court of Florida




No. SC18-2061

Supreme Court of Florida

October 29, 2020


An Appeal from the Circuit Court in and for Santa Rosa County, David Rimmer, Judge - Case No. 571998CF000270XXAXMX

Andy Thomas, Public Defender, and Barbara J. Busharis, Assistant Public Defender, Second Judicial Circuit, Tallahassee, Florida, for Appellant.

Ashley Moody, Attorney General, and Charmaine M. Millsaps, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, for Appellee


Jonathan Huey Lawrence appeals his sentence of death for the 1998 first-degree murder of Jennifer Robinson that was imposed in a 2018 resentencing proceeding. We have jurisdiction, see art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const., and affirm. As is more fully explained below, although Lawrence's original death sentence was determined to be proportional based on substantially the same evidence presented during the de novo resentencing proceeding at issue, Lawrence argues on appeal that his sentence of death is not proportional. The State argues that this Court is legally prohibited, by the Florida Constitution, from reviewing death sentences for comparative proportionality when that review is not authorized by statute. We agree with the State and hold that the conformity clause of article I, section 17 of the Florida Constitution forbids this Court from analyzing death sentences for comparative proportionality in the absence of a statute establishing that review.


In 2000, Lawrence pleaded guilty to principal to the first-degree murder of Robinson, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, giving alcoholic beverages to a person under twenty-one, and abuse of a dead human corpse, and he was sentenced to death for Robinson's murder. Lawrence v. State, 846 So. 2d 440, 442 (Fla. 2003). Robinson's murder followed two separate criminal episodes in which Lawrence and his codefendant murdered one individual and attempted to murder another individual. See id. at 443 n.3. We detailed the facts of Robinson's murder on direct appeal, explaining that Lawrence and his codefendant, who was also convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for Robinson's murder, carried out their crimes against Robinson in accordance with notes in Lawrence's handwriting: Lawrence's codefendant, Jeremiah Martel Rodgers, picked up eighteen-year-old Jennifer Robinson from her mother's home on May 7, 1998. Rodgers and Robinson met Lawrence, and all three drove in Lawrence's truck to a secluded area in the woods. After imbibing alcoholic beverages, Robinson had sex with Rodgers and then with Lawrence. At some point thereafter, Rodgers shot Robinson in the back of the head using Lawrence's Lorcin .380 handgun. The gunshot rendered Robinson instantly unconscious, and she died minutes later. Lawrence and Rodgers loaded Robinson's body into Lawrence's truck and drove further into the woods. Lawrence made an incision into Robinson's leg and removed her calf muscle. Rodgers took Polaroid pictures of the body, including a picture of Lawrence's hand holding Robinson's foot. Lawrence and Rodgers buried Robinson at that site.

Investigators traced Robinson's disappearance to Lawrence and Rodgers. When confronted by Investigator Todd Hand, Lawrence denied knowing Robinson and consented to Hand's request to search Lawrence's trailer and truck. After recovering multiple notes written by Lawrence and Polaroid photographs depicting Robinson postmortem, Hand arrested Lawrence. One page of the recovered notes states in part: "get her very drunk," "yell in her ears to check consicouse [sic]," "even slap hard," "[r]ape many, many, many times," " 'slice and dice,' [d]isect [sic] completely," "bag up eatabile [sic] meats," and "bag remains and bury and burn." Another page of notes provides a list of items and tasks, some of which had been checked off or scribbled out. That list includes "coolers of ice = for new meat," strawberry wine, everclear alcohol, scalpels, Polaroid film, and ".380 or-and bowies [knives]." Other items located by investigators during their search of Lawrence's trailer and truck included a box for a Lorcin .380 handgun; empty Polaroid film packages; a piece of human tissue in Lawrence's freezer; a blue and white ice chest; an empty plastic ice bag; disposable gloves; a scrapbook; and several books, including an anatomy book []titled The Incredible Machine, within which had been marked female anatomy pages and pen lines drawn at the calf section of a leg. Lawrence subsequently confessed to his involvement, after waiving his Miranda [v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)] rights, and led detectives to Robinson's body.

Id. at 442-43 (footnotes omitted). On direct appeal, Lawrence appealed only his sentence of death, and we affirmed, id. at 446, including on the basis that Lawrence's death sentence was proportionate in comparison to other cases in which we have upheld the imposition of the death penalty, id. at 452-55.

We subsequently affirmed the denial of Lawrence's initial postconviction motion and denied his habeas petition. Lawrence v. State, 969 So. 2d 294, 315 (Fla. 2007).

Thereafter, the trial court granted Lawrence's successive postconviction motion, vacated his death sentence, and ordered a new penalty phase proceeding pursuant to Hurst v. State, 202 So. 3d 40 (Fla. 2016), receded from by State v. Poole, 297 So. 3d 487 (Fla. 2020).

Before the second penalty-phase proceeding, which is at issue here, began, Lawrence sent a handwritten letter to the trial court requesting that his death sentence be "reinstated," stating in pertinent part: [M]ay I request to please have my death sentence reinstated? I've never wanted a new trial or anything to do with the Hurst hearing/ruleing [sic] and have been trying for ten years to have my last attorney . . . drop all my appeals but he has completely ignored me and refused any form of communications with me until telling me my new attorney's names and that I'm to go . . . for a new sentencing that I do not want. I'm guilty of all my charges and deserve my death sentence. I've had no intention of putting the families, friends and loved ones of the innocent people I deliberately helped murder through all these 20 long years of grief, suffering and loss, to have to indure [sic] more. They deserve justice and every amount of peace my death sentence and conclusion might give them.

Through appointed counsel, Lawrence subsequently moved to waive his rights to a penalty-phase jury, to present mitigation, and to challenge the State's evidence. After inquiring of Lawrence and hearing testimony from a doctor who had evaluated Lawrence and found him competent, the trial court found Lawrence's waivers to be knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. The trial court ordered a presentence investigation and appointed special counsel pursuant to Marquardt v. State, 156 So. 3d 464 (Fla. 2015), to assist it in considering available mitigation.

Thereafter, following the State's penalty-phase presentation and special counsel's presentation at a subsequent hearing that also served as a Spencer1hearing, the trial court sentenced Lawrence to death, finding that the aggravating circumstances[2] "greatly outweigh" the statutory and nonstatutory mitigating circumstances.[3] In sentencing Lawrence to death, the trial court further found as follows: The Court has carefully considered and weighed the aggravating and mitigating circumstances found to exist in this penalty phase. The State has proven beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt the existence of two serious aggravators. The prior violent felony aggravator was given great weight due to the fact that both prior offenses were committed prior to the murder of Jennifer Robinson, were committed with the co-defendant, Rodgers, and involved murder and attempted murder. Both of these prior crimes were senselessly violent and without any moral or legal justification. They are indicative of the same total disregard for human life evidenced in this case. In each case, Lawrence and Rodgers killed or attempted to kill another human being. In addition, the cold, calculated, and premeditated aggravator was given great weight due to Lawrence's significant involvement in the planning, preparation, and execution of the murder.

The Court finds that these two aggravators greatly outweigh all of the statutory and non-statutory mitigating circumstances, inclusive of the significant mental mitigation.


On appeal, Lawrence argues that his death sentence is disproportionate in comparison to other cases in which the sentence of death has been imposed. The State urges us to recede from precedent holding that we must review the comparative proportionality of every death sentence to "ensure uniformity of sentencing in death penalty proceedings," Rogers v. State, 285 So. 3d 872, 891 (Fla. 2019), by reserving the death penalty "for only the most aggravated and least mitigated of first-degree murders." Id. at 892 (quoting Urbin v. State, 714 So. 2d 411, 416 (Fla. 1998)); see also Fla. R. App. P. 9.142(a)(5) (providing that the Court shall review proportionality on direct appeal whether or not the issue is presented by the parties). In support of its argument, the State contends that comparative proportionality review violates the conformity clause of article I, section 17 of the Florida Constitution. We agree with the State and write to explain why our precedent is erroneous and must yield to our constitution.

The Florida Constitution Precludes Comparative Proportionality Review

The conformity clause of article I, section 17 of the Florida Constitution...

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