Florida Supreme Court – Criminal Headnotes – September 20, 2018
Direct appeal from conviction and sentencing for first-degree murder, armed burglary with assault or battery, first-degree arson, and armed robbery. The penalty phase jury had recommended the death sentence by a vote of nine to three, and trial court imposed a sentence of death.
The defendant asserted a number of errors in both the guilt phase and the penalty phase. These included arguments that: (1) the state had committed a discovery violation by failing to inform defense counsel of a material change in the testimony of the victim’s live-in boyfriend concerning his whereabouts on the day of the murder; (2) that the trial court had improperly admitted hearsay testimony from investigating officers concerning the reasons for their decision to discontinue investigating the live-in boyfriend as a possible suspect; (3) that the trial court had improperly limited defense counsel’s cross-examination of several prosecution witnesses; (4) that the trial court had erred in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence developed as a result of the state’s use of a cell-site simulator search of his cell phone; (5) that testimony elicited by the state from the medical examiner was outside the scope of his expertise; (6) that the prosecutor’s closing argument improperly shifted the burden of proof, denigrated the defense, misstated the law, and included inflammatory remarks; and (7) that the trial court improperly prevented the defense from arguing in closing that the defendant had no motive to commit the crimes.
The supreme court rejected each of these arguments either as unfounded or as harmless error.
With respect to the penalty phase, however, the court ruled that the non-unanimous death penalty verdict violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights in light of Hurst v. Florida, 136 S.Ct. 616 (2016), on remand, Hurst v. State, 202 So. 3d 40 (Fla. 2016), cert. den., 137 S.Ct. 2161 (2017), absent a clear indication that the jury had found each fact necessary to support a sentence of death. The court remanded the case for a new penalty phase hearing.
Justice Lawson concurred specially, referencing his special concurrence in Okafor v. State, 225 So. 3d 768 (Fla. 2017), which recited his disagreement with the majority in the decision on remand in Hurst, but accepted that with the denial of certiorari in that case it was now the court’s precedent.
Justice Pariente concurred in the remand on the penalty phase, but dissented from the majority’s decision not to grant a new trial on the guilt phase. She argued at some length that the state’s failure to disclose the change in the alibi testimony of the live-in boyfriend, the trial court’s errors in allowing hearsay testimony of the investigating officers, the limitations imposed on the defense in cross-examining the boyfriend, and the state’s improper comments in closing argument, taken cumulatively, could not be viewed as harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.