Life insurance means death row for Sean A. Bush. His finances in tatters, Bush shot, beat and stabbed his estranged wife Nicole Bush to death for more than $815,000 of life insurance in her home near St. Augustine, Fla.
His lust for insurance money helped earn his long, slow march to execution. Bush also ignited a fierce court battle: Should the circumstantial evidence that convicted him mean a cell on death row?
Nicole was found face down in a pool of blood in her master bedroom after police responded to a 911 call. She was shot six times — including five bullets to her head. Nicole also was stabbed, and hit three times with a baseball bat. She was barely alive, but couldn’t identify her assailant before dying with severe blood loss at the hospital. Nicole left two children behind.
Convicted by circumstantial evidence
Prosecutors never directly connected Bush to her murder. They wove a tapestry of circumstantial evidence that convinced a jury.
Bush couldn’t pay his rent on time, had to keep up with child support, and kept asking others for money. He was “broke as a joke,” he told others.
Bush also knew he was the beneficiary of two life policies taken out on Nicole. He called the insurers several weeks after her death to confirm his beneficiary status and make claims.
The gun and weapon used to stab Nicole were never found. Bush’s DNA was, however, discovered on a bloody baseball bat that policed discovered hidden in her home.
Bush also had a violent past. He was earlier convicted of trying to electrocute another ex-wife to death. Bush threw an electrified metal rod into a bathtub while she was taking a bath. He then choked her when she got out of the tub.
Even without a direct tie to Nicole’s murder, a jury took less than three hours to convict Bush in 2011. A judge sentenced him to death.
Death-row sentenced upheld
Bush appealed to the state Supreme Court. The majority upheld his death sentence in May 2020. The arguments circled around a long-held legal standard for using circumstantial evidence in Florida criminal appeals.
Florida’s prior standard for proving guilt in criminal appeals using circumstantial evidence provided:
“Where the only proof of guilt is circumstantial, no matter how strongly the evidence may suggest guilt, a conviction cannot be sustained unless the evidence is inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence.”
The state Supreme Court abandoned that standard for Bush’s appeal. The majority applied a new rule: “… whether the state presented competent, substantial evidence to support the verdict.”
While often nuanced and subtle, such differences in legal standards matter. For Sean Bush, that nuance spells the difference between life and death row.
About the author: Jim Quiggle is senior director of communications for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.