Bush murder conviction and death penalty stands

On August 26, 2011, Historic City News reported that, following the execution of several search warrants and review of DNA test results, detectives obtained an arrest warrant for Sean A. Bush in connection with the nearly three-month-old murder of his 35-year-old wife, Nicole Elise Bush.  Yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the conviction and death sentence.

The autopsy showed that the victim suffered six gunshot wounds, including five to the head, and was stabbed and beaten, including suffering three blows to the head that split her skull.  The gun and the weapon used to stab Nicole Bush were never found, and authorities did not have direct evidence that the estranged husband committed the murder.

“During the months leading up to the murder, Bush was in severe financial distress, unable to pay his rent on time, responsible for paying child support and asking others for money,” Thursday’s opinion found. “Bush expressed that he was broke as a joke and low on cash. Bush was the beneficiary of his wife’s $815,240 life insurance policy, and he was aware for some time prior to the murder that he had been designated as the policy beneficiary.”

Investigators developed large amounts of circumstantial evidence, including the life insurance policy that named Bush as a beneficiary. Several weeks after the murder, Bush called to confirm his beneficiary status and subsequently submitted a claim for the policy proceeds.

A jury convicted Bush based on the circumstantial evidence, ultimately resulting in his death sentence. While his attorneys raised a series of arguments in the appeal, all five Supreme Court justice agreed the evidence was adequate to uphold his conviction.

“Because a rational trier of fact could, and did, find from this evidence that Bush committed the first-degree murder of Nicole under both premeditated and felony murder theories, Bush is not entitled to relief,” the court ruled.

The ruling in this case essentially abandons a “special appellate standard” in circumstantial-evidence cases in Florida. Decades ago “all federal courts and almost all state courts instructed juries using a special standard when the evidence of a defendant’s guilt presented at trial was circumstantial.”

The U.S. Supreme Court called the standard into question in 1954.  Federal courts and most states stopped using the special standard. Florida stopped using the standard to instruct juries in 1981 but continued to use it in considering criminal appeals.

After this decision, appellate courts in circumstantial-evidence cases will use a standard like in cases with at least some direct evidence — “whether the state presented competent, substantial evidence to support the verdict.”  Thursday’s opinion was at least the third time in the past year that the Supreme Court has reversed course on decisions made by justices in the past.

Last May, it changed a decision about controversial expert-witness standards in lawsuits and in January backed away from a decision that required unanimous jury recommendations before murder defendants could be sentenced to death.

The changes have come after conservatives became a majority of the court in early 2019. Longtime justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, and Peggy Quince, who had been part of the left-leaning majority, left the court in January 2019 because of mandatory retirement age, allowing remaining conservative justices and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to reshape the court.