Ashley Toye was sentenced to life in prison at 17-years old for her involvement in the double murder of Jeffrey and Alexis Sosa in 2006. The facts of the case were troubling; one of the prosecutors who worked on the case told me it was the most troubling and disturbing cases she had worked on in a career of criminal law work. The Sosa’s were kidnapped, tortured, and ultimately killed by a would be rap group/gang under ringleader Kemar Johnston. Johnston allegedly forced Toye and others to participate in the torture, before the victims were taken to a remote area, shot, and their bodies set on fire. The State pursued the death penalty against Johnston, but he was given life in prison. Several other co-defendants agreed to cooperation plea deals to avoid mandatory life sentences on First Degree Felony Murder Charges.
Ms. Toye elected to take her chances at trial. She was pregnant with Johnston’s baby at the time of trial, and claimed that she only participated for fear of what he might have done to her. While she was acquitted of premeditated murder, she was convicted of first degree felony murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence. Life means life in Florida, and Ms. Toye was sentenced without the possibility of parole, in spite of the fact that she was a minor at the time of the offense: she got the same sentence as Mr. Johnston. The case garnered national attention, even a segment on the “Dr. Phil Show” discussing Ms. Toye’s case, specifically. I recommend checking out the episode, specifically for Dr. Phil’s discussion of the purpose and theory regarding juvenile sentencing.
Subsequently, the Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Miller v. Alabama, which found that mandatory life sentences are not permissible against minors under the Constitution. This entitled Toye to a new sentencing hearing. Florida subsequently passed a law governing sentences for minors, indicating that if they killed or intended the death of the victim, they still could be sentenced to life, with a 40 year minimum, albeit with the possibility of review after 25 years. Florida law also provided that if they did not kill or intend the death, there is no minimum sentence and that they are entitled to have their sentence reviewed after 15 years.
Local attorney Stu Pepper took up the case for Toye, and represented her at the new sentencing. Pepper argued that the jury did not find that Toye had intended the death of the victims, in fact, she was acquitted of the premeditated murder charge. That would have required her to have a review after 15 years. Further he, he presented evidence of Toye’s efforts toward rehabilitation in prison and argued for a significantly reduced sentence. Also, the state conceded that it appeared that a term of years with a 15-year review was appropriate. However, the court chose to disregard those arguments, and sentenced Toye to life in prison, without the possibility of review for 25 years.
The case was again appealed, and the 2nd District Court eviscerated the lower court’s sentencing. The 2nd DCA found that Toye could not be sentenced to the greater possible sentence because there had not been a jury finding that she had killed or intended the death of the victims. The court overturned the sentence, and remanded it to the lower court for Ms. Toye to get a brand new sentencing hearing, and indicating that she should be sentenced under the subsection of the statute that does not have a mandatory minimum and allowing her a review after 15 years. Further, the DCA found that the court considered improper factors, so that when she comes back for re-sentencing, she will be entitled to have a new judge hold the new sentencing hearing. The State can appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court of Florida, but I would posit that is unlikely, when the sentencing prosecutor conceded that a life sentence probably wasn’t appropriate.
This is huge win for the defense, as Ms. Toye will finally have a meaningful chance to not only avoid a life sentence, but to have her sentence reviewed after 15 years. The DCA opinion almost certainly will persuade the new judge that a life sentence is not appropriate- even the State did not argue for it the last time around. I spoke to Mr. Pepper, who was very happy that Ms. Toye will get a new shot at sentencing. Mr. Pepper says that after 7 years, Ms. Toye will be entitled to an early release from prison, which she deserves. Mr. Pepper complimented the appellate attorneys, Mariko Outman and Chris Altenbernd. Pepper said they, “did a fantastic job prosecuting the appeal. The reversal was made possible by their efforts. This is what lawyering is all about.”
Indeed it is… representing an unpopular defendant against whom the system again and again imposed an unjust result is exactly what lawyering is all about.