Loyal Advocates for Our Clients Fighting for Our Clients Like No One Else Can

Florida Supreme Court – Criminal Headnotes – August 31, 2017

CHRISTOPHER DEAN V. STATE OF FLORIDA – MANSLAUGHTER AS LESSER INCLUDED OFFENSE OF FELONY MURDER; SENTENCING AS PRISON RELEASEE REOFFENDER

Review of Dean v. State, 199 So. 3d 932 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016) on certified question whether manslaughter is a necessarily lesser-included offense of second-degree felony murder.

The Court determined the question in the affirmative. While the felony murder statute, section 782.04(3), Fla. Stat. (2004), requires that the death be caused by someone other than the defendant or a fellow perpetrator of the underlying felony, the manslaughter statute, section 782.07, Fla. Stat. (2004), requires only that there be a “causative link” between the defendant’s culpable act and the death — not that the defendant himself actually do the killing.

“The elements of manslaughter,” the Court concluded, “are always subsumed within the elements of second-degree felony murder because both offenses require some action by the defendant that ultimately causes the victim’s death.”

The Court also quashed the 4th District appeals court’s affirmance of the trial court’s sentencing the defendant as a prison releasee reoffender (“PRR”), because the state had not introduced evidence showing the crimes here occurred within three years of the defendant’s release. The state is not precluded from presenting such evidence on remand.

EDWARD ALLEN COVINGTON V. STATE OF FLORIDA – AGGRAVATING AND MITIGATING FACTORS, SUFFICIENCY OF SENTENCING ORDER; VALIDITY OF GUILTY PLEA; INELIGIBILITY FOR HURST RELIEF

Direct appeal from death sentences on three counts of first degree murder. The defendant had pleaded guilty and had waived a penalty phase jury. On appeal, the defendant challenged the trial court’s findings on two aggravating factors and one mitigating factor, and the sufficiency of the sentencing order as a whole.

The Court found sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s application of the “particularly vulnerable” aggravator as to two of the murders, where the defendant had taken on the role of a parent to the victims. Similarly, the Court found sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s application of the “heinous, atrocious, or cruel” (HAC) aggravator as to one of the murders, where the victim was conscious during the attack and aware of her impending death.

The Court found the trial court had sufficiently weighed aggravating and mitigating factors to meet the requirements of Campbell v. State, 571 So. 2d 415 (Fla. 1990), and its progeny. Although the state conceded the trial court had erred in not considering ineligibility for parole as a mitigating circumstance, the Court determined this error was harmless.

The Court sua sponte reviewed the guilty plea and found it had been made knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. The Court found the death sentences were proportionate, in light of the weight accorded to the various aggravators and mitigators. The Court rejected the defendant’s argument he was entitled to resentencing in light of Hurst v. Florida, 136 S.Ct. 616 (2016), as he had waived a penalty phase jury.

WILLIAM A. GREGORY V. STATE OF FLORIDA – INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL; NEWLY DISCOVERED EVIDENCE; REMAND FOR PENALTY PHASE POST-HURST WHERE JURY RECOMMENDATION NOT UNANIMOUS

Appeal from order denying motion for post-conviction relief and petition for writ of habeas corpus.

The Court found the defendant had not shown trial counsel was ineffective in making strategic decisions not to use certain evidence in rebutting the state’s theory of the case, in his impeachment of two jailhouse informants, or in failing to object to an inaccuracy in a transcription of a jailhouse phone call. Nor had defendant shown there was any “reasonable probability” the result would have been different had trial counsel acted differently, as required by Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).

The Court determined the post-conviction court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion for a new trial based on the purported recantation by one of the jailhouse informants, where this evidence would not have resulted in an acquittal, citing Jones v. State, 709 So. 2d 512 (Fla. 1998).

The Court denied that portion of the habeas petition alleging ineffective assistance of counsel on the earlier direct appeal in failing to argue the trial court had erred in admitting, over objection, transcripts of jailhouse phone calls from an incarceration that preceded the murders. The Court noted it would have rejected this argument had it been made.

However, because the penalty phase jury was not unanimous in its recommendation of the death penalty, and did not make specific findings on the weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors, the Court vacated the death sentences, granted the habeas petition in part, and remanded for a new penalty phase, in light of Hurst v. Florida, 136 S.Ct. 616 (2016).

ARAMIS DONELL AYALA V. RICK SCOTT – WRIT OF QUO WARRANTO; REASSIGNMENT OF DEATH PENALTY CASES TO ANOTHER CIRCUIT

Petition by state attorney for the 9th Circuit for a writ of quo warranto, challenging the Governor’s authority to reassign death penalty cases arising in her circuit to the state attorney for another circuit.

After the petitioner announced at a press conference that she would not seek the death penalty in any eligible case, the Governor issued a series of executive orders reassigning the prosecution of death-penalty eligible cases pending in the 9th Circuit to the state attorney for the 5th Circuit. None of these orders directed the state attorney to whom these cases were assigned to pursue the death penalty in any particular case.

The petitioner argued these orders exceeded the Governor’s authority under section 27.14(1) of the Florida statutes, which allows him to reassign cases if a state attorney is “disqualified” to represent the state in any pending matter, or if “for any other good and sufficient reason” he determines “the ends of justice would best be served” by the reassignment.

The Court rejected this argument, noting Article IV, section 1 of the state constitution grants the Governor broad authority to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and his exercise of this authority is reviewable only for abuse of discretion. The Court also rejected the argument this matter should be viewed as “a power struggle over prosecutorial discretion,” as the petitioner, by announcing a “blanket” policy, had decided to exercise “no discretion at all.”

Justice Pariente dissented in an opinion in which Justice Quince concurred, arguing the decision not to seek the death penalty is entirely within the discretion of the state attorney, and the Governor’s order “fundamentally undermines” her constitutional role.