Juror jailed in death penalty case after chat with friend leads to mistrial


Bessman Okafor, left, was convicted of the 2012 murder of Alex Zaldivar, 19, in Ocoee, Florida. A jury sentenced him to death, but the Florida Supreme Court overturned it because it was not unanimous. In a resentencing trial, a juror allegedly talked to a friend who knew about the case, leading to a mistrial. The juror was charged with indirect contempt of court on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2023. (Okafor: Florida Department of Corrections; Zaldivar photo via his obituary)

A juror in a Florida death penalty resentencing trial spent the night in jail after she allegedly violated court rules, which led to a mistrial.

The resentencing trial was for convicted murderer Bessman Okafor, 38, who killed Alex Zaldivar in September 2012 in Ocoee, a suburb of Orlando. Zaldivar was set to testify against Okafor in a separate case that led to an execution-style killing during a home invasion. A jury convicted Okafor three years later and sentenced him to death, but the sentence was overturned because the verdict was not unanimous.

In April, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law that only requires eight of the 12 jurors to approve a death penalty, so Okafor’s case began a resentencing trial on Oct. 13. Jurors began their deliberations after closing arguments.

According to ABC affiliate WFTV, the juror told the judge she spoke about the case to a friend who knew the victim. The judge charged the juror with indirect contempt of court, records show. Prosecutors and Okafor’s defense attorney filed a joint motion to dismiss the juror, which was granted. The judge then granted the defense attorney’s motion for dismissal.

“The court hereby orders that the defendant remain held at the Orange County Jail pending further order of the court,” minutes on the clerk of court’s case file said.

Jason Gunn, a spokesman for the Ninth Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office, said in a statement to Law&Crime that prosecutors are “investigating if any action needs to be taken in regards to the cause of the mistrial.”

Florida and Alabama are the only two states in the U.S. that allow non-unanimous verdicts in death penalty sentencings. The impetus for the change in the Sunshine State’s law came after the jury in the death penalty phase in the Nikolas Cruz case, the man who killed 17 people and wounded 17 outside at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. Three jurors spared Cruz the death penalty at last year’s penalty phase trial, and he was instead sentenced to life in prison.

“Once a defendant in a capital case is found guilty by a unanimous jury, one juror should not be able to veto a capital sentence,” DeSantis said in a statement after he signed the bill. “I’m proud to sign legislation that will prevent families from having to endure what the Parkland families have and ensure proper justice will be served in the state of Florida.”

It was just the latest change for the death penalty in Florida over the past few years. In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s death penalty system, which only required a majority of jurors to impose death was unconstitutional. In response, the Florida legislature passed a law requiring a 10-2 vote.

However, in October 2016, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the jury must be unanimous, thus throwing out verdicts like Okafor’s. The Legislature changed the law to meet the unanimous standard in 2017, only to reverse course following the Cruz case.

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