With Florida’s death-penalty sentencing law still in limbo, a judge postponed Friday a critical hearing on the execution of a Miami man convicted of fatally beating a man with a baseball bat in 1984.
Miami-Dade prosecutors sought a continuance of the sentencing hearing previously set for Feb. 22, as Florida lawmakers are still scrambling to revamp the law to comply with last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared the state’s sentencing structure unconstitutional.
Jury selection for the long-awaited death-penalty proceeding for Rickey Roberts, 61, will now be held roughly one month after the state Legislature concludes its session March 11.
“Fairness dictates that this court should wait until the end of the legislative session, and grant the requested continuance,” Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez ruled in a five-page order Friday. She set a status conference for March 14 and plans to hold the penalty hearing within 30 days.
Prosecutors asked the judge to delay the hearing until the state Legislature fixes the law in the coming weeks. But Roberts’ defense lawyer insisted that his client deserved justice now — and that the only lawful sentence is life in prison.
“They haven’t told you under what authority they have to wait for a law that doesn’t exist,” lawyer Phillip Reizenstein told the judge at a hearing earlier this week. “How long is enough? Do they get a week? What if the Legislature doesn’t do anything?”
The judge responded Friday that she could neither hold the death-penalty proceeding nor grant Roberts a life sentence because either way that would be legislating from the bench while Florida legislators consider changing state law. Until now, Florida judges have decided on the death penalty with a recommendation from juries. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juries must now make that decision.
Friday’s continuance was yet another twist in a long and winding legal saga for Roberts, who was convicted at trial in 1985 for the vicious beating death of 20-year-old George Napoles.
Back in June 1984, Napoles and two teenage girls parked at a beach next to the Rickenbacker Causeway near Key Biscayne to drink wine. Roberts drove his car up, parked, pulled them out of their vehicle and demanded to see their IDs. When Napoles grew suspicious and asked for his police badge, Roberts took a baseball bat from his car and whacked him in the back of the head several times.
Roberts — who was on parole for a 1977 rape in Maryland — then raped one of the girls inside his car. At gunpoint, he kidnapped her for hours but eventually let her go. He was arrested, convicted at trial in 1985 and sentenced to death for murdering Napoles.
Roberts was scheduled for electrocution in 1989 but won a stay from the Florida Supreme Court. Then Gov. Lawton Chiles signed Roberts’ second death warrant in January 1996 — he was 18 hours from the electric chair before the state high court again stayed the execution.
After years of litigation, the Florida Supreme Court in 2002 granted him a new sentencing hearing because prosecutors improperly drafted the sentencing order for the judge.
Since then, the case was delayed over and over as Roberts and prosecutors fought various legal battles at the appellate courts. The case was also delayed after prosecutors appealed a judge’s decision forcing the rape victim to testify in person — a decision overturned in 2014 by the Third District Court of Appeal.
The case ground to a halt in recent months as the U.S. Supreme Court, in the cast Hurst v. Florida, pondered whether the state’s sentencing scheme was unconstitutional.