Florida Prisoner Sentenced to Life After Third Non-Unanimous Death Penalty Verdict

After nearly two decades of capital trials and death-penalty reversals, former Florida death-row prisoner David Snelgrove has been resentenced to life in prison without parole. His three sentencing trials provided a barometer of the impact of the United States Supreme Court and Florida Supreme Court decisions in Hurst v. Florida and Hurst v. State, and the lengths to which prosecutors were willing to go in attempts to keep unconstitutionally sentenced prisoners on death row.

Before his latest sentencing trial, trial judges had twice sentenced Snelgrove to death despite non-unanimous sentencing recommendations by his juries. The jury vote that resulted in his life sentence on January 14, 2020 was also non-unanimous.

In January 2016, in the case of Timothy Hurst, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death-sentencing statute, which had given sentencing juries a limited advisory role and left the ultimate fact-finding and sentencing authority to the trial judge. The Court ruled that those sentencing procedures violated a capital defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, the Florida legislature amended the law to permit the trial judge to impose a death sentence only if the jury unanimously found at least one circumstance that made a defendant eligible for the death penalty and ten or more jurors recommended death. However, months later, in October 2016, the Florida Supreme Court struck down that statute as violating the state constitutional requirement of unanimous jury verdicts. The legislature then amended the state capital sentencing law to require a unanimous jury recommendation for death before the judge could impose a death sentence.

Snelgrove was capitally charged for murdering an elderly couple in Flagler County in 2000. He was convicted in 2002 and the trial judge imposed the death penalty after a 7-5 jury recommendation for death. That death sentence was overturned because the jury issued a combined recommendation of sentence on its verdict form, rather than issuing individual recommendations on each murder count. Snelgrove was then resentenced to death in 2008 after an 8-4 jury recommendation for death. The Florida courts then overturned that sentence in light of the two Hurst decisions.

Despite the significant number of jurors voting for life in each of Snelgrove’s prior sentencing trials and Florida’s new jury unanimity requirement, Flagler County prosecutors again sought the death penalty against Snelgrove in 2020. In a weeklong sentencing trial, the defense presented more than four dozen mitigating circumstances as reasons to spare Snelgrove’s life. They included evidence of fetal alcohol exposure from his mother’s drinking while pregnant that had left him with a head smaller than more than 90 percent of the population; brain scans that revealed significant continuing brain damage; repeated beatings by his father, placement in special education classes for emotionally disabled students; and untreated addiction at the time of the murders.

“Life is precious,” Snelgrove’s lawyer told the jury in his closing argument. “A vote for life does not mean that you’re demeaning [the victims]. It just means that you think it’s the correct fate for this case and these facts.” After nearly five hours of deliberations, the jury indicated that it was split on the appropriate sentence, with three jurors voting for life.

In a column in the Flagler County new outlet Flagler Live, titled For Seven Days, Flagler Sees Florida’s Broken Death Penalty Machinery in Action, commentator Pierre Tristam criticized the wasteful futility of the prosecution’s insistence on pursuing death in Snelgrove’s case. Tristam called the death penalty “a premeditated and choreographed act of torture and terror that brings neither closure to family survivors nor deterrence, two rationales still braiding the state’s noose.”

Three days later, another Florida former death-row defendant was resentenced to life without the possibility of parole in an unrelated double murder. In 2015, Barry Trynell Davis, Jr. was unconstitutionally sentenced to death following non-unanimous (9-3 and 10-2) jury recommendations for death on two counts of murder. The jury vote at his January 17, 2020 resentencing was not reported.