Florida justices asked to reconsider overturning death sentence for Bessman Okafor


  • Photo via Florida Department of Corrections
Attorney General Pam Bondi's office has asked the Florida Supreme Court to reconsider a ruling that overturned the death sentence of a man convicted in a high-profile home invasion murder in Orange County.

The state late Friday filed a motion for a rehearing in the case of Bessman Okafor, who was found guilty of murdering Alex Zaldivar in an Ocoee home in 2012. Okafor was sentenced to death, but the Supreme Court on June 8 ruled that he should receive a new sentencing hearing.

Justices pointed to a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Hurst v. Florida and a subsequent Florida Supreme Court decision. The 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found Florida's death-penalty sentencing system was unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries. The subsequent Florida Supreme Court ruling said juries must unanimously agree on critical findings before judges can impose death sentences and must unanimously recommend the death penalty.

In Okafor's case, the jury voted 11-1 to recommend death.

"To find the error harmless in this case, we would be required to speculate why one juror was 'persuaded that death was not the appropriate penalty,'" a majority of the Supreme Court ruled. But in the motion filed Friday, Bondi's office asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the issue of "harmless error" in the Okafor case. The motion said Okafor murdered Zaldivar and wounded two other people because of concerns Zaldivar would testify against him in an earlier home-invasion case.

"(A) properly instructed jury would have undoubtedly determined that the death penalty was the appropriate sentence for Okafor, considering the irrefutable evidence that he murdered Zaldivar to keep the victim from testifying at Okafor's upcoming home invasion robbery trial," the motion said. "Okafor meticulously planned the murder. While out of jail on home confinement, Okafor arranged for weapons, a hoodie and gloves to use during the second break-in at the house. He asked people to serve as look-outs, advising them to listen for sirens and call him if they heard any. Okafor gathered people to help him invade the home in the middle of the night, rouse the occupants out of bed and force them at gunpoint to lie on the floor."