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Florida Supreme Court Abandons Circumstantial Evidence Review Standard

by David M. Reutter

In affirming the conviction and death sentence of Sean Alonzo Bush, the Supreme Court of Florida announced it is abandoning the different standard for reviewing wholly circumstantial evidence cases.

Bush was convicted of the brutal attack on his estranged wife Nicole Bush. The couple was separated when Bush allegedly disarmed the alarm panel to Nicole’s home in the early morning hours of May 31, 2011. The medical examiner testified that Nicole was shot six times with a .22-caliber weapon, five times in the head and once in the elbow. She also sustained blunt force injuries from a baseball bat. At least three of the blows were to the top of her head, splitting her skull and bruising her brain. She also was stabbed in the left breast and right arm. She was able to call for help but died hours later from her injuries at the hospital.

Bush was arrested in September 2011. A jury returned a verdict on August 2, 2017, finding him guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, felony murder, and burglary of a dwelling with an assault. It unanimously recommended the death penalty, and the trial court imposed a death sentence for the murder and a life sentence for the burglary.

As required by the Florida Constitution, a direct appeal was brought in the Florida Supreme Court. Bush challenged the sufficiency of the evidence, arguing the evidence was wholly circumstantial and requested it apply the special standard it has applied to such cases. The Court agreed that “the State’s case is based on entirely circumstantial evidence,” but it found the special standard is unwarranted.

“For many years, Florida has been an outlier in that we have used a different standard to evaluate evidence on appeal in a wholly circumstantial case than in a case with some direct evidence,” the Court wrote. “[W]e will join all federal courts and the vast majority of state courts for the same reason that Florida abandoned the special circumstantial evidence standard for use in instructing juries in 1981.”

Florida’s history of using a special standard of review for circumstantial evidence cases is fully explained in Knight v. State, 107 So.3d 449 (5th Cir. 2013). That case articulated the standard this way: “Where the only proof of guilt is circumstantial, no matter how strongly the evidence may suggest guilt, a conviction cannot be sustained unless the evidence is inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence.”

The U.S. Supreme Court called that standard into question, opining “where the jury is properly instructed on the standards for reasonable doubt, such an additional instruction on circumstantial evidence is confusing and incorrect.” Holland v. United States, 348 U.S. 121 (1954). All federal courts and most state courts abandoned that special standard in the wake of Holland. The Florida Supreme Court cited Holland when abandoning the circumstantial evidence jury instruction in 1981, but it continued to use the circumstantial evidence for reviewing cases on appeal.

“As a result, Florida became an extreme outlier with a ‘somewhat discordant’ position that the special standard should not be used to instruct the jury but should be used to judge the jury’s verdict,” wrote the Court. “However, it should be obvious that it wholly defies reason to suggest that a standard for determining whether evidence is insufficient for conviction if used by a juror … but appropriate for use by a judge to determine whether the verdict complies with the law.”

Historically, in cases where there is some direct evidence, the standard of review to determine the legal sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction is “whether the State presented competent, substantial evidence to support the verdict.” That standard views the evidence in the light most favorable to the State and asks whether “a rational trier of fact could have found the existence of the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Court held that “standard should now be used in all cases where the sufficiency of the evidence is analyzed.” Applying that standard to Bush’s appeal, the Court found the evidence presented supported the conviction. To hold otherwise would be contrary to the jury’s instructions that inform it to not entertain “a mere possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary, or forced doubt,” explained the Court.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed Bush’s convictions and sentences. See: Bush v. State, 2020 Fla. LEXIS 800 (2020).

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Related legal case

Bush v. State



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