Florida Supreme Court – Criminal Headnotes – February 22, 2018
CRAIG ALAN WALL, SR. V. STATE OF FLORIDA – COMPETENCY TO PLEAD; VOLUNTARINESS OF PLEA; MOTION TO DISQUALIFY FOR BIAS; PROPORTIONALITY OF DEATH SENTENCE
Direct appeal from two convictions for first-degree murder, each with a sentence of death.
At various pre-trial, trial, and post-trial proceedings, the defendant was represented by counsel, and at others he represented himself pro se. He pleaded guilty to one of the murders and no contest to the other. In the penalty phase, he waived a jury and represented himself. The trial court appointed independent special counsel to present additional mitigation.
On appeal, the defendant argued the trial court had erred in accepting his guilty and no contest pleas without first ordering a further evaluation of his competency, and in failing to recuse itself upon his motion to disqualify. On its own motion, the supreme court also considered whether the pleas were voluntary and the proportionality of the death sentences.
With respect to the competency evaluation, the court noted that the defendant had been examined previously on the question whether he was competent to represent himself at trial, and that while the finding that he was then competent set a presumption that he remained competent throughout subsequent proceedings, in fact the trial court did order another examination prior to accepting the pleas.
The motion to disqualify was untimely, the court ruled, and in any event did not articulate a well-founded fear of judicial bias.
The court reviewed the colloquy surrounding the guilty pleas and concluded there were made “knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily.” The court also determined that the death sentences were proportionate to murders it found to be among “the most aggravated and least mitigated.”
JAMES GUZMAN V. STATE OF FLORIDA – DENIAL OF JUROR STRIKES FOR CAUSE; CHALLENGE TO STATE’S PEREMPTORY STRIKE; DENIAL OF MOTION TO STRIKE PANEL; SUFFICIENCY OF EVIDENCE; NON-UNANIMOUS DEATH PENALTY VERDICT POST-HURST
Direct appeal from convictions for armed robbery and first-degree murder. The defendant had been convicted twice previously of these crimes, which were committed in 1991. The first convictions were reversed because the public defender had a conflict of interest. Guzman v. State, 644 So. 2d 996 (Fla. 1994). The second convictions were set aside on a petition for habeas corpus, Guzman v. Department of Corrections, 698 F. Supp.2d 1317 (M.D.Fla. 2010, affirmed, 663 F.3d. 1336 (11th Cir. 2011), on the ground that the state had knowingly presented false testimony the federal courts found was material.
At the third trial, from which the present appeal arose, the defendant sought to strike three jurors from the panel for cause. The trial court denied these challenges, and the defendant used two peremptory strikes, leaving the third juror on the panel. The supreme court found no error in the denial of the two challenges, and declined to address the third because the trial court had allowed the defendant an additional peremptory strike, which he used on another panelist.
The defendant also challenged the state’s use of a peremptory strike to remove a black juror from the panel. The state proffered as an explanation for this strike that the juror had indicated during voir dire that she watched CNN rather than Fox News. Both the trial court and the supreme court accepted this explanation as race-neutral.
Further, the defendant argued the trial court had erred in denying his motion to strike the entire panel because of a comment one of the jurors made that suggested the defendant had already been convicted of these crimes. The supreme court ruled that this comment did not indicate that the juror had actual information that should properly have been excluded.
On its own motion, the court also determined the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to support the convictions.
Although the penalty phase jury did unanimously find all of the aggravators on which the death sentence was based, its vote to recommend the death penalty was not unanimous. The court vacated the death sentence and remanded for resentencing in light of Hurst v. Florida, 136 S.Ct. 616 (2016).
Convictions affirmed. Death sentence vacated. Remanded for resentencing.
RODRICK D. WILLIAMS V. STATE OF FLORIDA – MINIMUM MANDATORY SENTENCE;
Review of Williams v. State, 211 So. 3d 1070 (Fla. 5th DCA 2017), on the certified question whether Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99, 133 S.Ct. 2151 (2013) requires that a jury, rather than the trial judge, make the factual finding required by section 775.082(1)(b)1 of the Florida statutes that a juvenile offender have “actually killed, intended to kill, or attempted to kill” the victim in order to support a minimum mandatory sentence of forty years.
The jury found the defendant guilty of kidnapping and first-degree murder, but the verdict form did not require the jury to specify — and it did not specify — whether the murder conviction was premised on the defendant himself having killed the victim or on the fact that the killing occurred in the course of a felony. The trial court sentenced him to life imprisonment for the murder, with possibility of parole after 25 years, and to 50 years for the kidnapping.
On direct appeal, the 5th District ruled, in Williams v. State, 171 So. 3d 143 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015), that the life sentence was unconstitutional under Alleye, and remanded for resentencing, with instructions that the trial court make specific findings on the question whether the defendant himself “actually possessed and discharged a firearm during the crime.”
On remand, the trial court denied the defendant’s motion to impanel a jury for this purpose, and made the indicated findings itself. The appeals court, relying on Falcon v. State, 162 So. 3d 954, 963 (Fla. 2015), determined that the trial court had not erred in denying the motion, but certified the question as one of “great public importance.”
The supreme court determined an Alleye error did occur, and that while it would be possible for such an error to be “harmless,” where the record established beyond a reasonable doubt that a rational jury would have found that the juvenile defendant did actually kill, intend to kill, or attempt to kill the victim, in the present case these questions were disputed.
The court remanded for resentencing under section 775.082(1)(b)2, which imposed a minimum sentence of only 15 years, where there is no finding that the juvenile defendant himself did the killing or intended or attempted the killing.
Justice Canady, dissenting in part, would remand with instructions to empanel a jury to make the necessary findings. He rejected the majority’s expressed concern that such a procedure might have double jeopardy implications.