Florida Supreme Court – Criminal Headnotes – April 12, 2018

  • Apr 13 2018


Appeal from the summary denial of a renewed motion to determine intellectual disability as a bar to execution.

In 1980, the defendant pleaded guilty to felony murder and burglary of a dwelling.  He waived a penalty phase jury, and the trial court sentenced him to death.  The conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal.

Following the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), forbidding the execution of mentally retarded criminals, the defendant filed a motion to vacate the death sentence on the ground that he was intellectually disabled.  The trial court denied the motion, on the sole ground that the defendant had not established that he had “significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning,” for purposes of section 921.137(1) of the Florida statutes, which defines that phrase as scoring two or more standard deviations below the mean on a standardized intelligence test — that is, an intelligence quotient of 70 or below.  That result was also affirmed on appeal.

In 2014, in Hall v. Florida, 134 S.Ct. 1986 (2014), the Supreme Court determined that rigid adherence to the 70 point cutoff, and failing to take into consideration the margin of error in these tests, was a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.”  The defendant renewed his motion to vacate the death sentence, and the trial court again denied the motion.

On appeal, the defendant argued that Hall in effect requires the trial court to apply the “Flynn” effect to his intelligence test scores, subtracting several points to account for an inflation of test scores across the general population over time.  The court had previously rejected this argument and rejected it again here.

The defendant also argued that the trial court had erred in considering only the “significantly subaverage functioning” prong of the intellectual disability claim, without also considering the other two prongs, “deficits in adaptive behavior” and manifestation prior to age 18.  The court rejected this argument, citing several precedents to the effect that if a defendant fails to prove any of the three prongs, he cannot establish intellectual disability.

Finally, the defendant argued that the burden of proof set by section 921.137(4), requiring him to establish intellectual disability by “clear and convincing” evidence, is unconstitutional, and that he should be permitted to establish disability by a mere preponderance of the evidence.  The court found it unnecessary to reach the constitutional question, as it found that the defendant would not have established disability even under the more lenient standard.

Affirmed.  Justice Quince dissented without opinion.


Certified question from the 3rd District appeals court, whether a defendant must raise the statute of limitations at trial in order to preserve the issue for appeal.

More than twenty years after the incident, based on DNA evidence, the defendant was charged with and convicted of burglary of a dwelling with intent to commit sexual battery or robbery, and of the sexual battery itself, in each case while in possession of a firearm.  The appeals court reversed the burglary conviction because the statute of limitations had elapsed but certified the question whether this issue could properly be raised for the first time on appeal.

Citing Musacchio v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 709 (2016), the court determined that the limitations statute might be waived for tactical reasons, and that it must therefore be raised at trial in order to preserve the issue for appeal.

The court answered the certified question in the affirmative, quashed that portion of the appeals court’s opinion reversing the burglary conviction, and remanded with instructions to reinstate the conviction and sentence.  The court observed that this ruling did not preclude the question whether trial counsel might have been ineffective in failing to raise the limitations statute at trial.

Justice Pariente, concurring, noted that if trial counsel had timely raised the limitations defense, the state could easily have amended the information to charge “the same burglary, but as a life felony,” for which there is no limitation.


Appeal from the denial of a motion to vacate a death sentence in light of Hurst v. Florida, 136 S.Ct. 616 (2016).

On direct appeal several years earlier, in Hall v. State, 107 So. 3d 262 (Fla. 2012), the court had affirmed the conviction and sentence, but struck the “cold, calculating, and premeditated” (CCP) aggravator as not supported by the evidence.  The defendant now argued that this in itself required a new sentencing hearing, because it was unclear whether the penalty phase jury would have recommended the death penalty on the basis of the other aggravators alone.

In rejecting this argument, the court distinguished Wood v. State, 209 So. 3d 1217 (Fla. 2017), on which the defendant relied, noting that in that case the striking of two of the three aggravators, to which the trial court had attached “great weight,” left only one — that the death occurred during the commission of a burglary or robbery –, and that it was unclear whether the jury would have recommended the death penalty on the strength of that aggravator alone, balanced against the mitigators.

In the present case there were several other aggravators, to each of which the trial court had attached “great” or “very great” weight, and all but one of these were undisputed.  The court also cited two other recent decisions, Middleton v. State, 220 So. 3d 1152 (Fla. 2017), cert. denied, 138 S. Ct. 829 (2018), and Cozzie v. State, 225 So. 3d 717, 729 (Fla. 2017), cert. denied, No. 17-7545 (S.Ct. 04/02/18), in which it had let stand a death sentence despite striking one or more aggravators.

The court rejected, both as procedurally barred and on its merits, the defendant’s argument that trial counsel’s failure to present mental health mitigation evidence to the penalty phase jury rendered him ineffective.

The court also rejected the defendant’s arguments that the then-standard advisory instructions given to the penalty phase jury violated Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320 (1985), and that the death sentence itself violated his right to due process or the Eighth Amendment.

Finally, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the indictment itself was defective for not listing the aggravators.


Justice Pariente dissented, arguing that the striking of an aggravator to which the trial court has attached great weight should render the Hurst error per se not harmless.  Justice Quince joined this dissent.

Posted in: Criminal, FL Supreme Court, Sex Crimes, Violent Crimes