SEBRING — It was on June 9, 2012, that Aaron Doty attended a party hosted by Kenneth Felipe Jr. and Jonathan Ray Rodriguez.
During that party, authorities said, Felipe and Rodriguez fought with the 20-year-old Doty, beat him and then set his unconscious body on fire while he was still alive.
Despite those circumstances, the pair, if convicted, won’t face the death penalty, Assistant State Attorney Stephen Houchin said this week.
Houchin said Doty’s slaying does not meet the legal criteria for seeking the death penalty.
The law lists factors that would allow for seeking the death penalty and one of those circumstances must be relevant to the case, he said.
Of a number of factors, the one closest to being relevant states: “The capital felony was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.”
Information received by Houchin during a seminar states that to determine whether the crime meets those criteria, authorities must consider the crime in relation to the victim, regardless of whether the perpetrator intended the crime to be heinous, atrocious or cruel.
Because of that, Houchin said, that even though Felipe and Rodriguez are accused of burning Doty’s body, that wouldn’t apply because he was unconscious at that time. There’s no way to prove that Doty suffered pain while unconscious, he explained.
The information provided during the seminar cites one case that stated “Nothing done to the victim after death or unconsciousness is relevant to heinous, atrocious or cruel.”
Another case indicated that a prosecutor can’t accomplish showing the crime is cruel by asking the jury to “imagine the pain and terror the victim felt.”
Houchin said witness statements show that Doty was unconscious when his body was burned. Houchin declined to speculate on whether Doty could have been saved before he was burned.
That Doty’s case will not involve the death penalty is common in Highlands County. Only two defendants on death row are from Highlands County.
The last defendant to receive the death penalty in Highlands County was Joshua Lee Altersberger. He was convicted of shooting Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Nick Sottile in January 2007. Under state law, the murder of a law enforcement officer is one factor that a prosecutor can use to seek the death penalty.
In seeking whether other cases merit the death penalty, Houchin said, prosecutors meet and discuss the law and the factors of the case before deciding.
Other factors that could be considered in seeking the death penalty include a person having been previously convicted of a felony. Houchin said neither of them has been convicted of a serious-enough prior felony.
A similar one would be if the suspect was previously convicted of a capital felony or a crime that involved violence or the threat of violence, the law states.
The law also says the death penalty can be sought if the suspect knowingly acted and created a great risk of death to many people; the suspect committed one or more specified crime, such as robbery or sexual battery at the same time as the murder; and if the suspect is accused of killing someone to prevent an arrest or to help an escape.
Other factors include murder to gain money, murder to disrupt government or the enforcement of laws and if the victim was under the age of 12.
Houchin said the law also provides mitigating circumstances, such as the lack of a criminal history. But the defense attorney is not limited to those mentioned in the law, he said.
There must be a determination whether the aggravating circumstances that favor the death penalty outweigh the mitigating factors, for someone to get the death penalty, he said.