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Bellay v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

July 10, 2019


         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit, Martin County; Lawrence Michael Mirman, Judge; L.T. Case No. 431980CF000430A.

          Carey Haughwout, Public Defender, and Stacey Kime, Assistant Public Defender, West Palm Beach, for appellant.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Deborah Koenig, Assistant Attorney General, West Palm Beach, for appellee.

          FORST, J.

         Appellant Brooks Bellay appeals his life sentence, imposed following a resentencing hearing pursuant to Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and section 921.1401, Florida Statutes (2017). Appellant argues that his life sentence is an unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment because "the evidence did not establish that he was permanently incorrigible." Appellant also maintains that he was entitled to elect to be resentenced under the 1983 sentencing guidelines. We find that Appellant's sentence is constitutional, and that Appellant was sentenced under the proper law. As discussed below, we affirm.


         In 1979, a four-year-old girl was reported missing. A search commenced, in which Appellant, then fourteen years old, participated as a volunteer. Eventually, the child was found dead, naked, and partially covered in blood in a wooded area near her home. The autopsy revealed that "the cause of death [was] blunt trauma to the abdomen leading to exsanguination. The four year old child had a lacerated liver, fractured ribs, and a contusion to her sternal area. Very significant force produced these injuries."

         Appellant ultimately admitted to killing the child. He was initially charged with first-degree murder. Following negotiations with the State, Appellant waived his right to request a youthful offender sentence, and the State dropped the first-degree murder charge in return for the Appellant pleading guilty to second-degree murder. Per the "open plea," the determination of the sentence was left to the trial court; it sentenced Appellant to life imprisonment.

         Following the United States Supreme Court's opinion in Miller and the subsequent enactment of section 921.1401, Florida Statutes, Appellant filed a motion for postconviction relief, contending that his life sentence as a juvenile offender violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and that, per Miller and section 921.1401, he was entitled to an individualized resentencing hearing. With the State's consent, a resentencing hearing was scheduled.[1]

         Prior to that hearing, defense counsel filed a motion asking for Appellant to be sentenced as a Youthful Offender or under the 1983 sentencing guidelines. The trial court denied both requests.[2]

         At the resentencing hearing, the State focused on the disturbing nature of the offense, and the substantial impact that the abduction, search, and murder had upon the victim's family and community.

         The defense pointed to Appellant's family life and purported remorse at the time of the crime. The defense's primary focus, however, was on Appellant's transformation while incarcerated. The defense argued that, in 1997, Appellant commenced meaningful participation in a religious program that his witnesses claim resulted in a "spiritual transformation," leading to his becoming, in the words of his classification officer, "the perfect inmate."

         The court issued a written resentencing order following the hearing. The order first discussed Miller, noting that the Court's opinion

acknowledged that a sentencing court might encounter the "rare juvenile offender" for whom rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified. Further, even if a court considers a child's age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects "unfortunate yet transient immaturity." Life without parole should only be imposed on juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility and irreparable corruption.

         The trial court's order next detailed its consideration of "all" of the sentencing factors set forth in section 921.1401. The court first stated that "[t]o say this crime is horrific is an understatement. It is one of the most heinous crimes that has ever occurred in the history of this jurisdiction . . . ." The order then discusses Appellant's behavior immediately before and after the "shockingly evil" murder; witness characterizations of Appellant during this time frame; circumstances surrounding the murder; and Appellant's behavior in prison (both before and after the 1997 "spiritual transformation"). Concluding that "there is no doubt whatsoever that this Defendant is the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such permanent incorrigibility and irreparable corruption that rehabilitation is impossible and a life sentence without meaningful parole is justified," the trial court resentenced Appellant to life in prison.

         The court also found that, for statutory purposes relating to entitlement to sentence review, Appellant "is a person who actually killed and intended to kill the victim" and that the crime was committed while Appellant was a juvenile. The court thus determined that Appellant is currently "eligible ...

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