The Miami appeals court’s decision surprised legal observers — because Geter represented himself. The court did not ask lawyers on either side to lay out their arguments.
“Everybody was shocked and dismayed,” said Ilona Prieto Vila, director of Barry’s resource center. “It kind of came out of the blue. You have a right to counsel in Florida and there was a lot of confusion about what happened and why he did not have an attorney.”
Immediately, hearings for new sentences halted in trial courts around Florida. A Tallahassee appeals court, in the Gonzalez case, last month agreed with the Geter decision. Legal observers believe the “retroactivity” issue will be settled in higher courts.
“It’s a very technical issue,” said Miami-Dade Assistant Public Defender Stephen Harper, who is working on the issue. “Ultimately, I think its going to go back to federal court and the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Higher courts, at least in Florida, and possibly the Legislature itself will likely also have to settle the question of the proper sentence for juveniles convicted after the Miller decision.
Santiago’s was the first South Florida murder case to go to sentencing after the Miller decision. He was 17 when he used an AK-47 to mow down a man and woman in Liberty City in 2006. Their young daughter identified the killer because of his distinct face cross tattoos. Miami-Dade jurors in August convicted him of two counts of first-degree murder.
As the Miller ruling suggested, the sentencing judge last month listened to testimony about Santiago’s troubled childhood. A psychologist, testified that Santiago “bawled like a baby” when remembering his tormented family life, which included abuse by an aunt and uncle.
“They are impulsive,” Dr. Merry Haber said of teenage defendants like Santiago. “They are not thinking about consequences of their behavior. They make poor judgments.”
Judge Ellen Sue Venzer did not let him off easy: 60 years. Miami-Dade prosecutors say they will appeal. The reason: According to the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, first-degree murder sentences now must “revert” back to before the sentencing laws were changed in 1994. That means youths convicted of first-degree murder should get an automatic life sentence — but with the chance for parole after 25 years.
The state long ago effectively abolished the parole system, but a commission still exists to examine longtime inmates eligible for release because their cases date back to the early 1980s or before.
“The parole commission was never eliminated,” said Pensacola State Attorney William Eddins, the head of the prosecutors’ association. “The commission will just have some more cases is what it amounts to.”
Critics, including the Public Defender’s Office, say courts don’t have the authority to “enact a new, hybrid statute.”
And judges still need to consider that “juveniles are developmentally different from adults in ways that diminish their culpability for criminal conduct,” Assistant Public Defender Manuel Alvarez wrote in one court filing.