Florida Supreme Court – Criminal Headnotes – March 15, 2018
KENTRELL F. JOHNSON V. STATE OF FLORIDA – ENFORCEABILITY OF AGREEMENT NOT TO SEEK DEATH PENALTY; BOLSTERING DNA EVIDENCE;
Direct appeal from conviction and sentencing for kidnapping and for premeditated and felony murder.
The central issue on appeal was the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to enforce a commitment a state attorney had made not to seek the death penalty if the defendant assisted investigators in finding the victim’s body. The defendant upheld his end of the bargain, but the case was ultimately tried in another judicial district where the body was found, and the state attorney for that district declined to honor the agreement.
The supreme court acknowledged that there was no direct precedent on the question whether an agreement not to prosecute made by a state attorney in one district is enforceable against a state attorney in another district, but because the case could have been tried in either district, the court ruled that the state could not avoid the agreement simply by transferring the case to another district. Because the court vacated the death sentence and remanded with instructions to instead impose a sentence of life without parole, it did not reach other issues the defendant had raised concerning the penalty phase.
The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court had erred in denying his motion for a judgment of acquittal at the close of the evidence on the ground that the state had not established that the crime had been committed in that district. The defendant’s further argument that the state had engaged in forum shopping to avoid the agreement not to seek the death penalty had not been preserved for review. In any event, the court determined, venue would have been proper in either district, as elements of the crime had been committed in each.
The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the prosecutor had improperly bolstered the DNA evidence in closing argument to the jury, citing statistics the defendant said were not supported by the testimony of the state’s expert witness. Because the defendant’s appointed counsel had not raised this objection at trial, the court reviewed the claim under the “fundamental error” standard. The court determined that the expert had in fact testified to the statistical significance of the DNA matches in question, and that the prosecutor’s argument drew reasonable inferences from this testimony. In any event, the court said, other evidence was more than sufficient to support the conviction.
The defendant also argued that the trial court had abused its discretion in allowing the state’s peremptory strike of one juror. The proffered race-neutral reason was that the juror felt his ex-wife had been mistreated by the criminal justice system. The defendant’s lawyer countered that other members of the panel had reported similar experiences, but was unable to identify those panelists or their races. The supreme court found no clear error.
The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court had erred in admitting evidence of collateral crimes which he acknowledged were “inextricably linked” to the crimes charged, but which he said were not sufficiently close in time and location.
Finally, the defendant argued his trial counsel had been ineffective in failing to move for a change of venue. Because any ineffectiveness was not evident on the face of the record, the court determined this was not a proper subject for review on direct appeal.
Remanded with instructions to reduce the death sentence to life without possibility of parole.
JEFFREY GLENN HUTCHINSON V. STATE OF FLORIDA – MOTION FOR POST-CONVICTION RELIEF; WAIVER OF PENALTY PHASE JURY PRE-HURST
Appeal from the summary denial of a motion to vacate the defendant’s conviction and sentencing to death for multiple counts of first-degree murder in light of the decision of the Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida, 136 S.Ct. 616 (2016).
The court first rejected the defendant’s argument that his trial counsel was ineffective in advising him to waive the penalty phase jury, as this was a strategic decision that was reasonable given the state of the law pre-Hurst. The court then determined that that the defendant was ineligible for relief under Hurst because he had waived a penalty phase jury.
The court was not persuaded by the defendant’s efforts to distinguish Brant v. State, 197 So. 3d 1051 (Fla. 2016), and Mullens v. State, 197 So. 3d (Fla. 2016), both denying Hurst relief where the defendant had waived the penalty phase jury.
On the question whether the trial court should have granted an evidentiary hearing on the motion, distinguished some older decisions cited by the defendant in which the court had remanded for evidentiary hearings after the Supreme Court ruled in Hitchcock v. Dugger, 481 U.S. 393 (1987) that a penalty phase jury must be instructed and the defendant allowed to present evidence on nonstatutory mitigators. Here, there had been no change in the law affecting what evidence could be presented to a penalty phase jury.
Finally, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that he could not have waived the right to a unanimous penalty phase jury verdict, because prior to Hurst the courts did not recognize that right.