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Knight v. State

Supreme Court of Florida

January 31, 2017

RICHARD KNIGHT, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF FLORIDA, Appellee. RICHARD KNIGHT, Petitioner,
v.
JULIE L. JONES, etc., Respondent.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION, AND IF FILED, DETERMINED.

         An Appeal from the Circuit Court in and for Broward County, Eileen M. O'Connor, Judge - Case No. 062001CF014055A88810 And an Original Proceeding - Habeas Corpus

          Neal Andre Dupree, Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, Southern Region, Todd Gerald Scher, Assistant Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, Southern Region, and Jessica Leigh Houston, Staff Attorney, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for Appellant/Petitioner.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, and Lisa-Marie Krause Lerner, Assistant Attorney General, West Palm Beach, Florida, for Appellee/Respondent.

          PER CURIAM.

         Richard Knight appeals an order of the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit Court in and for Broward County denying his motion to vacate his sentence of death filed under Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.851. Knight also petitions this Court for a writ of habeas corpus. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), (9), Fla. Const. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm the circuit court's denial of Knight's rule 3.851 motion and deny his petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

         I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE & FACTS

         On April 26, 2006, a jury found Richard Knight guilty of two counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of Odessia Stephens and her four-year-old child, Hanessia Mullings. The jury unanimously recommended a death sentence for each murder. Knight v. State, 76 So.3d 879, 884 (Fla. 2011).

         A. Trial & Direct Appeal Proceedings

         On direct appeal, we set forth the following relevant factual and procedural background:

The evidence presented at trial established that Knight lived in an apartment with his cousin, Hans Mullings, Mullings' girlfriend, Odessia Stephens, and their daughter, Hanessia Mullings. Mullings and Odessia had asked Knight to move out numerous times.
On the night of the murder, June 27, 2000, Mullings was at work. At approximately 9 p.m., Mullings spoke to Odessia, who said she was going to bed, and then Mullings left his office to run errands. Knight was at the apartment with Odessia and Hanessia.
Around midnight, an upstairs neighbor heard multiple thumping sounds on the apartment walls and two female voices, one of which was a child crying. The neighbor called 911 at 12:21 a.m. on June 28, 2000. The cries continued after the police arrived.
Officer Vincent Sachs was the first to respond. He arrived at 12:29 a.m. and noted that the lights were on in the master bedroom and hall area, and that a second bedroom's window was slightly ajar. After knocking and receiving no response, he walked around the unit and noticed that the lights had been turned off and that the previously ajar window was now completely open and blinds were hanging out of it. Sachs shined his flashlight through the dining room window. He saw blood in the dining room and master bedroom. Further, he noticed Hanessia curled in the fetal position against the closet door. Once inside, he observed Odessia's body in the living room. All of the doors were locked and there had been no ransacking of the apartment.
Officer Natalie Mocny arrived next and walked around the unit. She also saw the open window and noticed Knight on the other side of some hedges approximately 100 yards from the building. She beckoned him over for questioning. Officer Sachs joined Mocny. According to the officers, Knight had a scratch on his chest, a scrape on his shoulder, and fresh cuts on his hands. Although it was not raining, Knight was visibly wet. Knight was wearing dress clothes and shoes, yet told Mocny that he had been jogging, and that he lived in the apartment, but did not have a key to get inside. There was blood on the shirt he was wearing and on a ten-dollar bill in his possession.
The crime scene investigation recovered two wet towels in Knight's bedroom, a shirt, boxers, and a pair of jean shorts under the sink in the bathroom near Knight's bedroom, all of which belonged to Knight and had numerous bloodstains. Two knife blades were also recovered, one from under the mattress in the master bedroom, and another from under Odessia's body.
Odessia's blood was found in the master bedroom between the bed and the wall, on the master bedroom blinds, on the living room carpet, on the knives' handles and blades, and on the knife holder in the kitchen. Odessia's blood was also discovered on Knight's boxers, shirt, jean shorts, the clothing Knight had been wearing when arrested, and his hand. Fingernail scrapings taken from Odessia contained Knight's DNA profile.
Hanessia's blood was found on one of the knives, on Knight's boxers, jean shorts, and on the shower curtain. The shower curtain also contained the blood of Knight's acquaintance, Victoria Martino.
Dr. Lance Davis, the medical examiner, observed the bodies at the scene. Odessia was found on the living room floor near the entrance with several broken knife pieces around her. She had twenty-one stab wounds: fourteen in the neck, one on the chin, and the rest on her back and chest. Additionally, she had twenty-four puncture or scratch wounds and bruising and ligature marks on her neck. The bruises appeared to have been made by a belt or similar object. She also had defensive wounds on both hands and wounds on her leg, chest, back and neck. Several of the knife wounds were fatal but none would have resulted in an instantaneous death. She had bruises from being punched on her scalp and mouth. Davis opined that Knight began his attack in the bedroom with Odessia fleeing to the living room. He estimated that Odessia was conscious for ten to fifteen minutes after the attack.
Davis discovered Hanessia on the floor next to the closet door. There were broken knife pieces around her. She had a total of four stab wounds in her upper chest and neck. Her hand had one additional stab wound and numerous defensive wounds. Hanessia's arms and upper body had numerous bruises and scratches. There were bruises on her neck that were consistent with manual strangulation and bruises on her arms consistent with being grabbed.
Stephen Whitsett and Knight were housed together from June 29, 2000, to July 22, 2000, at the Broward County Jail. Knight confessed to Whitsett about the murders as follows: The night of the murders Knight and Odessia argued. She told him that she did not want to support him and that he would have to move. He asked for some more time because he had just gotten a job, but Odessia refused and told him to leave in the morning. Knight left the house to go for a walk and he became increasingly angry. He returned that night, confronted Odessia in her room, and they argued.
Knight went to the kitchen and got a knife. When he went back to the master bedroom, Odessia was on one side of the bed and Hanessia was on the other. He began by stabbing Odessia multiple times. Odessia eventually stopped defending herself and balled up into a fetal position. Knight then turned to four-year-old Hanessia. The knife broke while he was stabbing Hanessia, so he returned to the kitchen for another. Upon returning, Knight saw Hanessia had crawled to the closet door and was drowning in her own blood.
Again, Knight returned to the kitchen and accidentally cut his hand on one of the broken knives that he had used to stab Odessia and Hanessia. He grabbed another knife. Odessia had crawled from the master bedroom to the living room and was lying in her own blood. He rolled her over and continued his attack. Odessia's blood covered Knight's hands, so he wiped them on the carpet.
Knight further confessed that, after he finished with Odessia, he went to the bathroom, took off the blood soaked shorts and T-shirt, and tossed them under the sink. He showered and put on blue polo pants. He wiped down the knives in the living room. At that time, Knight heard a knock on the door and saw the police outside through the peep hole. He ran to his room and out the window. In an attempt to deflect suspicion away from himself, Knight returned to his bedroom window where he saw a female police officer.
Knight was charged by indictment on August 15, 2001, for the murders of Odessia Stephens and Hanessia Mullings. The jury found Knight guilty of both counts of first-degree murder.
At the penalty phase, Knight called six witnesses, several of whom testified about his childhood and upbringing in Jamaica. His teacher, Joscelyn Walker, told the jury that Knight was a respectful and loving boy raised in a very respected family. He said that Knight did have a temper when provoked and would become extremely frustrated at times. Walker had to restrain him from time to time when Knight wanted to fight another child. Knight's high school art teacher, Joscelyn Gopie, described Knight as a pleasant, eager boy who was quite talented at art. Gopie explained that Knight was adopted as a toddler by his family. Knight left high school before he graduated.
Barbara Weatherly is the mother of Knight's former fiancée. She described him as a decent, honorable guy who respected her rules regarding her daughter. He always helped her younger children with their drawing. He was a quiet and peaceful person who spent a lot of time alone. One night at her house he got sick; his eyes rolled back in his head and he frothed at the mouth before passing out. They took him to the hospital where the doctor said that he needed to see a psychiatrist. She last saw him in 1998 when he left to go to the United States.
A former boss and coworker of Knight's, Stanley Davis, also testified. Davis explained that Knight had been adopted into a well respected family and had a close loving relationship with his family members. Knight took over many of his father's duties when his father lost a leg. Knight worked with him at a construction company and was a good worker. On one occasion Knight fell and blacked out, after which he had difficulty concentrating and became timid.
Valerie River, the defense investigator, and Knight's attorney journeyed to Jamaica to interview Knight's family and friends. Knight was abandoned by his mother and the Knight family found him at a hospital and took him home. He was a good brother and son. Knight's close friends and family said that he was a nice and good person. Knight's sister-in-law used to have Knight babysit her children but eventually stopped because he was careless around the house. Knight blacked out on one occasion. Knight's former boss Stedman Stevenson said he was a hard worker and a quick learner. He took Knight to Florida, and Knight decided to stay.
Knight also presented expert Dr. Jon Kotler who practices nuclear medicine and specializes in PET scans of the brain. He explained that Knight's physical symptoms indicated that he might have a brain injury. The MRI done on him was normal. Dr. Kotler did a PET scan which he interpreted as showing asymmetrical brain activity indicating possible pathology of the brain, perhaps a seizure disorder. He could not say exactly what the pathology might be or how it might manifest itself in Knight's behavior. Dr. Sfakianakis, another nuclear medicine doctor, read the PET results as showing only a mild difference between the brain hemispheres which was within the normal fluctuations of the brain.
Following the presentation of penalty-phase testimony, the jury unanimously recommended the death penalty for both murders.
The trial court subsequently conducted a [Spencer v. State, 615 So.2d 688 (Fla. 1993), ] hearing on August 18, 2006. At the hearing, the defense submitted the report and deposition of neuropsychologist Dr. Mittenberg who examined Knight but refused to testify at trial. The State submitted the report and deposition of Dr. Lopickalo, another neuropsychologist. Mullings and Eunice Belan also gave victim impact statements.
Subsequent to the Spencer hearing, the trial court followed the jury's [unanimous] recommendation and sentenced Knight to death. In pronouncing Knight's sentence, the trial court determined that the State had proven beyond a reasonable doubt two statutory aggravating circumstances for the murder of Odessia Stephens: (1) a previous conviction of another violent capital felony, and (2) that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel (HAC). The court also found three statutory aggravating circumstances for the murder of Hanessia Mullings: (1) a previous conviction of another violent capital felony, (2) HAC, and (3) the victim was under twelve years of age. The court found no statutory mitigating circumstances but found eight nonstatutory mitigators, which are set forth in our proportionality discussion.

Knight, 76 So.3d at 881-84 (footnote and headings omitted). On direct appeal, Knight raised five claims: (1) the trial court abused its discretion by denying Knight's motion for a mistrial based on Hans Mullings' comment that he knew Knight to have a violent background; (2) the trial court abused its discretion in denying Knight's motion for a mistrial based on the allegation that jurors saw him wearing shackles; (3) the trial court erred in ruling that no discovery violation occurred and in denying Knight's motion for a mistrial based on the State's expert's testimony regarding DNA evidence; (4) the trial court erred in denying Knight's motion to seat a new jury based on Mullings' testimony; and (5) Florida's death sentencing statute violates the Sixth Amendment and ignores Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002). Knight, 76 So.3d at 885. n.3.

         We affirmed Knight's convictions and sentence of death. Id. at 885. Knight's sentence became final on May 14, 2012, when the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari. Knight v. Florida, 132 S.Ct. 2398 (2012) (Mem).

         B. Postconviction Relief Proceedings

         On May 10, 2013, Knight filed his "Motion to Vacate Judgment of Conviction and Sentence with Special Request for Leave to Amend, " pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.851. He raised the following claims: (1) he was improperly denied access to public records; (2) the one-year deadline in Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.851 was unconstitutionally applied to him; (3) he was denied adversarial testing at the guilt phase; (4) he was denied adversarial testing at the penalty phase; (5) the rule prohibiting juror interviews is unconstitutional; and (6) Florida's lethal injection protocol and procedures are unconstitutional. The circuit court granted an evidentiary hearing on Knight's claims. The evidentiary hearing took place on March 27 and 28, 2014, when the circuit court heard testimony on Knight's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. On July 30, 2014, the circuit court denied all of Knight's claims for postconviction relief.

         II. POSTCONVICTION RELIEF CLAIMS

         A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel During Guilt Phase

         Knight argues that he is entitled to a new trial because trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance. First, Knight argues that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to call as a witness Dr. Nora Rudin, a DNA analyst who worked for the defense prior to trial. Second, Knight argues that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request a Frye[1] hearing to examine the reliability of the DNA testing procedures employed by the State. Third, Knight argues that trial counsel failed to discover and introduce a memorandum from one of the State's experts requesting a voluntary demotion. For the reasons below, we conclude that the postconviction court did not err in denying Knight's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.

         In accordance with Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), to obtain relief on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must establish

deficient performance and prejudice, as set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). See Rutherford v. State, 727 So.2d 216, 218 (Fla. 1998). As to the first prong, deficient performance, a defendant must establish conduct on the part of counsel that is outside the broad range of competent performance under prevailing professional standards. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688. Second, as to the prejudice prong, the deficient performance must be shown to have so affected the fairness and reliability of the proceedings that confidence in the outcome is undermined. See id. at 694; Rutherford, 727 So.2d at 220.
Gore v. State, 846 So.2d 461, 467 (Fla. 2003) (parallel citations omitted).
"[W]hen a defendant fails to make a showing as to one prong, it is not necessary to delve into whether he has made a showing as to the other prong." Waterhouse v. State, 792 So.2d 1176, 1182 (Fla. 2001). Further, as the United States Supreme Court explained in Strickland,
[j]udicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential. . . . A fair assessment of attorney performance requires that every effort be made to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel's challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel's perspective at the time. Because of the difficulties inherent in making the evaluation, a court must indulge a strong ...

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