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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – More than 30 years after a teen’s body was found floating in the St. Johns River, a federal appeals court has tossed out the death sentence of a man convicted in the drug-related murder.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower-court decision that John Gary Hardwick Jr., now 56, did not receive adequate legal representation before being sent to Death Row in the Jacksonville murder.

The appeals court ordered the state to hold a new sentencing hearing or to re-sentence Hardwick to life in prison.

Hardwick was convicted in the December 1984 murder of 17-year-old Keith Pullum, whose body was found in the river, according to court documents. Hardwick was upset about the disappearance of a stash of quaaludes.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court agreed with Hardwick’s argument that he received “ineffective assistance of counsel” during the sentencing phase of the case. The court said Hardwick’s attorney did not bring up a series of issues to jurors, who recommended by a 7-5 vote that Hardwick receive the death penalty.

Those issues, including Hardwick being neglected and abused as a child and a long history of substance abuse, could have been considered as “mitigating” evidence to argue against the death penalty.

“Because of counsel’s deficient performance, the jury saw only a drug dealer who brutally killed someone for stealing his quaaludes,” said a 45-page ruling, written by appeals court Judge Gerald Tjoflat. “They did not hear a word about Hardwick’s traumatic childhood background that was consistently marked by neglect, deprivation, abandonment, violence, and physical and sexual abuse. They never had a chance to examine the trove of documents evidencing his decade-and-a-half long history of drug and alcohol addiction starting at the young age of 11 or 12. They heard none of the affirmative evidence of his heavy intoxication at the time of the crime. Nor did they hear expert testimony about how these factors combined to render Hardwick substantially unable to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law, as the post-conviction mental health experts unanimously concluded.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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