New Ruling May Overturn Convicted Killer’s Death Sentence in Pensacola

The Florida Supreme Court issued a 37-page opinion on Thursday for an appeal filed by Pensacola’s Willie James Hodges, a man sentenced to death for the 2001 murder of Patricia Belanger.

“We therefore reverse Hodges’ death sentence and remand for a new penalty phase,” reads the line that could mean the difference between life or death for Hodges.

Hodges was sentenced in 2009 to death by lethal injection for beating, stabbing and raping Belanger back in 2001.

Local residents have mixed feelings about Hodge’s new possibility of life.

“We need to try and look into helping these people,” said Rob Silk, who does not support capital punishment. “Like find out why this sort of stuff is happening, rather than just get an end result — why should we not try and stop this stuff from happening in the first place.”

Now, Hodges will be granted a new penalty phase because Florida’s capital punishment process. The penalty phase is the part of a trial where, in this case, the jury determines the punishment that’s to be given to the defendant. In Hodges’ trial, the jury recommended death by a vote of 10 to 2.

“I’ve seen some stories about how some inmates’ [cases were reviewed after they died that] turned out to be innocent,” said Andrew Presa, who believes in reviewing all cases. “It’s just wrong.”

There’s been debate on if the new ruling should be retroactive. Several panhandle criminals sentenced to death could instead face life in prison.

But that’s also given locals mixed feelings.
“If you kill someone, you should be willing to accept what you did to someone else,” said Traci Bridges, who doesn’t believe in retroactive review. “There’s really no reason to revisit it if you’re guilty of it.”

Hodges filed a motion for post-conviction relief, but it was denied.

The decision to grant Hodges a new sentence was decided by a 4-3 vote in the Florida Supreme Court. It’s still uncertain whether or not he’ll go back to trial.


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