Court rejects life sentence for Florida juvenile who killed her alleged abuser

J.M.H. received a resentencing after the 2014 law passed, but a Lee County circuit judge again sentenced her to life in prison, with a review after 25 years.

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A state appeals court Friday ordered resentencing for a woman who faced life in prison for a murder she committed at age 17 against a man she said sexually abused her for years.

Pointing to the “unique circumstances” of the case and a U.S. Supreme Court decision about sentencing juveniles to life in prison, a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal tossed out the sentence in the 2001 murder of 77-year-old Paul Townsend in his Fort Myers home.

In a 25-page decision, the appeals court recounted extensive details of the woman’s troubled upbringing, which included being placed in foster care and being sexually abused beginning at age 11. The woman, identified in the ruling by the initials J.M.H., fatally shot Townsend after she and two other people went to his home to rob him. (The News Service of Florida does not typically publish the names of sexual-abuse victims.)

The decision said a trial court “abused its discretion” in sentencing J.M.H. to life in prison and, in part, “failed to consider the traumatic abuse and manipulation that J.M.H. suffered at the hands of the victim when she was a child.”

“The relationship and history between J.M.H. and her victim should have carried great weight,” said the ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Robert Morris and joined by judges Stevan Northcutt and Daniel Sleet. “Townsend's murder was not random, and there is nothing to suggest that J.M.H. would have committed similar offenses against any other person or that she was or is a threat to anybody but Townsend. J.M.H.'s tragic background, in which the victim played a large, detrimental part, attributed to the offenses and certainly serves to lessen her culpability.”

J.M.H., now 36, pleaded no-contest to murder and robbery charges to avoid the possibility of the death penalty. She was sentenced life in prison but received a resentencing after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision and resulting changes in Florida’s juvenile-sentencing laws.

The underpinning of that 2012 Supreme Court ruling, in a case known as Miller v. Alabama, was that juveniles are different from adults and that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the chance of parole violated Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The resulting 2014 state law allowed life sentences but attached new conditions that judges needed to consider.

J.M.H. received a resentencing after the 2014 law passed, but a Lee County circuit judge again sentenced her to life in prison, with a review after 25 years. That prompted the appeal.

Friday’s ruling said the circuit judge “improperly discounted J.M.H.’s status as a juvenile” at the time of the murder and “failed to duly consider the evidence regarding J.M.H.'s sexual abuse by Townsend as well as the overwhelming evidence of her unstable background.”

“J.M.H. had been removed from her mother at least three times and placed in foster care two times by the time she was 8 years old,” the ruling said. “When J.M.H. was returned to her mother the last time and the abuse by Townsend began when she was 11 years old, her mother failed to protect her or remove her from the abusive environment. A Department of Juvenile Justice counselor who assessed Hill after her arrest testified that Hill was ‘probably the most troubled kid’ he had worked with and that he had not seen that level of abuse before.”

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