Duval County

New Florida death penalty law to be applied for Johnathan Quiles, man found guilty in niece’s murder

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The final hearing before the penalty phase of Johnathan Quiles’ trial was held Friday.

On Thursday, Action News Jax broke the news live on air that the jury found Quiles guilty of raping and killing his 16-year-old pregnant niece, Iyana Sawyer.


Sawyer was killed back in December of 2018. At the time, investigators say Quiles had shot and killed Sawyer before leaving her body in a dumpster. Sawyer’s body was never found, but the jury was convinced Quiles killed her.

“Not having the body, not knowing where she rests, it’s a continued open wound, and it will always be an open wound,” Sawyer’s family attorney, John Phillips, told Action News Jax.

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The state is seeking the death penalty for Quiles. The court will now apply a recent law only requiring a supermajority for a death recommendation. The law allows for only eight jurors to recommend a death sentence, rather than provide a unanimous decision.

Florida is among only a couple states that only require a supermajority. The defense challenged the law in Quiles’ case, but it was denied by the court.

“Yeah, it gets challenged routinely, in essentially every case,” said Luke Newman, a board-certified specialist of criminal appeals, speaking about death sentences in Florida cases.

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Newman said it’s not uncommon to hear about a Supreme Court case that reverses a sentencing proceeding, but what is uncommon is a resentencing for cases involving this new law.

It was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis back in April, long after Sawyer’s death. Newman said it raises controversy over whether the law should apply to these kinds of cases.

“Even among experienced lawyers and judges, there is some difference of opinion whether the procedure adopted in April should apply to cases where the offenses had occurred prior,” Newman said.

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If Quiles gets the death sentence, Newman is confident the case will make its way to Florida’s high court, especially if the jury isn’t unanimous.

“This is going to be decided on by the Supreme Court,” Newman said, “Maybe other courts will pass it along as well.”

The penalty phase of the trial is set to start on Monday. The judge has set a tentative closing for the trial for Tuesday.


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