The Florida Supreme Court on Friday overturned a first-degree murder conviction that would have kept Malik Jimer Williams — a teenager when arrested — behind bars until he was in his 70s.
Williams claimed the lower courts should have granted his motion for judgment of acquittal and resentencing, and the justices agreed — sort of.
Finding that the state hadn’t disproved Williams’ self defense theory at trial, the high court quashed his conviction. But it kept an attempted murder conviction in place, arguing that because Williams hesitated before shooting, a jury could have reasonably found guilt.
On Feb. 15, 2013, Williams cycled to a Shell store in Tampa with cousin Kito Felton on his handlebars. But after a prickly encounter with two other cyclists — Reginald Johnson and John Edward Brown III — Williams came home a killer.
There was some commotion when the boys crossed paths, causing some or all of them to fall from their bikes, according to the opinion. Due to conflicting testimony, it’s not clear whether one group had tried to rob another.
The way Williams told it, Brown had threatened him with a gun, which landed on the floor when he fell off his bike. Williams claimed he picked it up in self-defense, killing Brown with bullets to the head and chest, and injuring Johnson with a shot to the hand.
A compromised decision?
The decision will shave 35 years off Williams’ sentence, according to his appellate lawyer Christopher E. Cosden in Fort Myers, who said he was confused by the court’s reasoning.
“Courts universally claim that when they sentence a defendant they apply the law to the facts and reach a fair result,” Cosden said. “Sometimes it appears that courts will stretch the facts or the law to reach a desired result.”
In Cosden’s view, it was a stretch to say that Williams acted out of self defense when he shot one alleged attacker but not the other.
“The conclusion that a jury could have found (Williams) guilty because he hesitated is, to be most charitable about it, not an entirely reasonable interpretation of the facts,” Cosden said.
Justices Peggy Quince wrote the opinion, backed by R. Fred Lewis and Barbara Pariente — all three of whom will retire on Tuesday. Justice Jorge Labarga concurred in result without elaborating.
Chief Justice Charles T. Canady also concurred in result — but only in part, arguing both convictions should remain intact, but that he’d like to see Williams resentenced.
“My guess is that this was a compromised decision,” Cosden said. “That Kennedy, Polston and Lawson, and possibly Labarga, said, ‘We’ll go along with reversing the first degree murder, which cuts 35 years of his sentence, as long as he gets convicted of something.”
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Assistant Attorney General Elba Caridad Marion and bureau chief C. Suzanne Bechard represented the state, which did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.
Williams will likely now be released in 2038 when he’ll be in his 40s, according to Cosden. Though he’s unhappy with the result, Cosden conceded it could have been a lot worse for his client.
“I don’t walk away from this feeling good because my client’s going to do a 25-year mandatory minimum,” Cosden said. “But I feel a whole lot better about getting a first degree murder conviction reversed and getting 35 years knocked off his sentence.”
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