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Wood v. State

Supreme Court of Florida

January 31, 2017

ZACHARY TAYLOR WOOD, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF FLORIDA, Appellee.

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

         An Appeal from the Circuit Court in and for Washington County, Christopher Nida Patterson, Judge - Case No. 672014CF000137CFAXMX

          Clinton Andrew Thomas, Public Defender, and Nada Margaret Carey, Assistant Public Defender, Second Judicial Circuit, Tallahassee, Florida, for Appellant

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, and Berdene Bevione Beckles, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, for Appellee

          PER CURIAM.

         Zachary Taylor Wood, who was twenty-three years old at the time of the crimes, appeals his conviction and death sentence for the April 2014 first-degree murder of James William Shores. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm Wood's conviction. However, we conclude that the trial court erred as a matter of law in finding two of the three aggravating factors, which served as a predicate for imposing Wood's death sentence, and erred as a matter of law in rejecting some of the uncontroverted mitigation offered. After conducting our independent review of the remaining single aggravating factor, which was that the capital felony was committed while Wood was engaged or was an accomplice in the commission of a burglary and robbery, we conclude that this murder is not among the most aggravated and least mitigated of first-degree murders and, therefore, conclude that Wood's death sentence is disproportionate. Accordingly, we uphold Wood's convictions but vacate the sentence of death and remand to the trial court for imposition of a mandatory life sentence without parole.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY The Guilt Phase

         On the evening of April 19, 2014, an Alabama State Trooper began a high-speed pursuit of a gold-colored Toyota Camry on Alabama State Highway 167, just south of the city of Enterprise, Alabama. The pursuit ended when the Camry and the patrol car crashed into a ditch off a nearby county road after the patrol car was shot at from the Camry during the chase. Once both cars were stopped, the Camry returned more gunshots to the nearby patrol car, and the Alabama State Trooper reciprocated. During the shootout, the driver of the Camry, Dillon Scott Rafsky, fled the Camry but was quickly apprehended by Alabama law enforcement approximately two miles from the scene. Wood, a passenger in the Camry, was taken into custody at the scene of the crash.

         Upon processing the crime scene in Alabama the same night, law enforcement discovered inside the Camry a wallet and passport belonging to a sixty-six-year-old James William Shores, the registered owner of the car. The identification indicated that Shores resided in Washington County, Florida, a small, rural county in Northwest Florida. Concerned, Alabama law enforcement contacted the Washington County Sheriff's Office and asked them to conduct a welfare-check on Shores. Shores' brother, Joe Boy Shores, was subsequently contacted by an employee of the Washington County Sheriff's Office. He left his house and traveled to Shores' nearby trailer, where he was met at 1:30 a.m. on April 20, 2014, by a Washington County Sheriff's deputy responding to the welfare-check call. After both determined that Shores was not present, Joe Boy suggested to the deputy that they check a "family farmhouse" on Shores' property that was accessible by a small trail behind the trailer because he had seen a dark-colored Jeep Grand Cherokee parked near that house when he drove to Shores' trailer, even though Shores did not own such a Jeep. Joe Boy and the deputy walked to the house and discovered Shores' body lying face down at the back of the house. Shores was wearing a red flannel shirt and blue jeans. He was bound at the legs with a cloth. His hands were bound behind his back with a heavy metal chain. Shores had sustained massive trauma to his head. The deputy called for backup to secure the crime scene.

         That same day, Washington County Sheriff's Office investigators traveled to the Geneva County, Alabama jail to interview Wood. Sitting in the jail's library after having recently been released from a local hospital where he had been treated for injuries sustained the previous day, Wood gave a statement in which he recounted an unfolding series of events occurring just north and south of the Florida-Alabama state line that led to Wood and Rafsky becoming stranded on Shores' Florida property the day before. Wood's statement was videotaped and later played to the jury during the guilt phase of the trial.

         In his statement, Wood told investigators that on Thursday, April 17, 2014, he was residing at the Enterprise Inn & Suites in Enterprise, Alabama. That day, he went with Rafsky to borrow a dark-colored Jeep Grand Cherokee belonging to Kelly Eggleston, who was a mutual friend and former neighbor of Wood. Wood and Rafsky went "dirt road riding" in the Jeep, but got stuck on a dirt road in Coffee Springs, Alabama on Friday, April 18, 2014, and eventually spent the night on the road. On the morning of Saturday, April 19, 2014, a farmer who lived nearby pulled the stranded Jeep out of the mud. Rafsky and Wood continued "dirt road riding" that morning before heading to Rafksy's parents house a little outside of Elba, Alabama. Wood and Rafsky were at Rafsky's parents' house at 9:30 A.M. that Saturday morning, before they departed for Florida. Once in Florida, they stopped at a Dollar General Store near Bonifay, Florida, as well a foodmart inside a Chevron gas station. Passing Bonifay, they went to a small general store named "Fred's, " where Wood stole some pants, a shirt, and two Gatorades. Rafsky continued driving on Highway 167[1] for about three or four miles before turning left on a dirt road.

         Once on the dirt road, they continued "dirt road riding" and ended up splashing mud onto a mail carrier's car parked on the road. They pulled up next to the mail carrier, and Wood got out to apologize and also to ask the mail carrier if they could "bum" two cigarettes off of her. She obliged, and they continued to go "dirt road driving" until they passed an "abandoned house, " where Rafsky proceeded to reverse the Jeep into its driveway. Upon reversing, Rafsky went too far off the driveway and got stuck in the yard.[2] Once the Jeep was stuck, Rafksy told Wood that they were "meant to be" at the house. Wood believed they were driving to meet a mutual friend, Heather Williamson, who also lived on a dirt road outside Bonifay.

         Rafsky and Wood entered the house and then "plunder[ed]" it before eating cupcakes and drinking Gatorade they had gotten from Fred's general store. According to Wood, neither he nor Rafsky were looking for anything in particular, but Rafsky took some paperwork from the house and used the bathroom. They then left the house and began attempting to free the Jeep from the mud, without success.

         About a half-hour after they got stuck, the victim, James Shores, pulled into the driveway in a gold-colored Toyota Camry and told them they needed to leave his property and that he would call the sheriff's office to remove the Jeep from the yard. Wood told Shores that he would fill in the holes caused by the Jeep and cover the holes with grass. Shores agreed, but advised that he would write down the Jeep's license plate number "just in case." After writing the license plate number down, Shores continued around the house.

         According to Wood, Rafsky followed Shores around the house, and Wood soon after heard a "bumping" noise. Wood followed Rafsky and saw that he had beaten Shores with a garden hoe. Rafsky told Wood that Shores had tried to attack him. At the time Rafsky followed Shores around the house, Wood was "messing with" a mailbox in front of the house "out of frustration" because, as Wood explained, Rafsky "gets so angry." Therefore, Wood claimed that he was unsure of whether Rafsky took the garden hoe with him to assault Shores, or whether the garden hoe was already nearby.

         Rafsky asked Wood for a chain, and asked him to find something else to bind Shores. Wood found a shirt in the house and bound Shores' legs with the shirt. Shores was still alive, and Wood may have punched him a few times to show Rafsky that he was not afraid and would not rat out Rafsky. However, Shores was not kicking or otherwise resisting. Wood claimed that Rafsky poured STP gas treatment on Shores and wanted Wood to "catch the old man on fire, " but Wood struck every match he had so it would appear to Rafsky that the matches would not light. At Rafsky's instruction, he took the license plate off the Jeep and placed it in Shores' Camry. While taking the license plate off the Jeep in the front of the house, Wood heard one gunshot fired.

         About thirty minutes after the altercation with Shores, Wood and Rafsky left the property in Shores' gold-colored Camry. Wood had moved a double-barrel shotgun from the Camry's trunk to the front seat when he placed the Jeep's license plate in the Camry's trunk. Wood threw the gym shorts he was wearing out of the window of the Camry somewhere outside Bonifay. They traveled to Hartford, Alabama, then to Enterprise, then to Daleville, Alabama, and then back to Hartford and Enterprise down Highway 167 when an Alabama State Trooper began pursuit. During pursuit, Rafsky asked Wood to hand him the shotgun Wood had previously placed in the front seat. Rafsky then asked Wood to shoot the gun at the officer, but Wood refused. Rafsky then slid the gun across his lap, aimed it out the window, and shot. Wood was subsequently indicted and tried for the murder of Shores.[3] At trial, Captain Mark Collins of the Washington County Sheriff's Office testified that Wood's statement to investigators was extremely helpful, and that investigators were able to verify many details of the unfolding events leading up to and after Shores' murder.

         Wood also testified at trial about the events leading up to the murder that largely mirrored his initial statement given to police investigators, except that he admitted that he ingested about one-half gram of methamphetamine when in the house; claimed that Rafsky shot him in the thigh the day before when Wood asked Rafsky to drop him off; stated that Rafsky had sold the gun he used to shoot Wood with before the pair entered Florida; and clarified that Wood threw his shorts out of the Camry's window when leaving Florida. Additionally, Wood testified that he and Rafsky had begun to drive away in the Camry after beating Shores, when Rafsky stopped the car and walked back to Shores and shot him. As Wood testified, Rafsky drove "maybe five-no more than ten feet . . . put[] the car in park, pops the tru[n]k and gets out, and . . . walks back to where Mr. Shores is. I did not see it, but I heard a gunshot fired." Rafsky then got back into the Camry and continued driving. Wood explained that he did not tell the investigators these additional facts in his initial statement because his interview took place shortly after he was released from the hospital and he was under the influence of heavy drugs.

         Forensic crime scene investigators testified at Wood's trial that DNA testing excluded Shores and Wood as contributors of DNA found on the Jeep's steering wheel, driver's door, and gear shift. DNA testing could neither include nor exclude Rafsky from the steering wheel, but could include Rafsky for the driver's door. Wood could neither be included nor excluded for the driver's door. Rafsky could be included for the gear shift knob, and Wood could neither be included nor excluded from the gear shift knob. DNA testing of the Jeep's glovebox revealed a major contributor of Wood and a minor contributor of Shores, which the forensic investigator testified meant that either Shores came into contact with the glovebox door or there was a secondary transfer via Wood, which might occur if any of Shores' bodily fluids were on Wood. Additionally, DNA testing of the Charles Daly 20-gauge shotgun recovered from the Camry revealed a full profile for Rafsky, but neither included nor excluded Wood.

         Crime scene investigators testified that the front door to the house had a muddy shoeprint in the middle of the door and the door's side latch was damaged, suggesting that the door had been kicked in. Two cigarette butts were found in the house, one in the bathroom toilet and another in the fireplace, and both were collected to be tested for DNA evidence. Later DNA analysis confirmed that the cigarette butt in the toilet belonged to Rafsky and the one in the fireplace belonged to Wood. A discharged fire extinguisher was also located in the house, sitting on a counter in the kitchen. Barefoot prints and shoe impressions were found on the back porch.

         Elizabeth Richey, an employee of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) firearms section also testified that the FDLE's testing of the shotgun shell, wadding, and pellet from Shores' body were consistent with Shores' Charles Daly 20-gauge shotgun. Carl Casteen, the chief of forensic services for the State Fire Marshall also testified and explained the examination process of Shores' red plaid shirt and undershirt, which revealed the presence of a "heavy petroleum distillate." Casteen explained that a "heavy petroleum distillate" could be, among other things, diesel fuel, kerosene, lamp oil, a solvent, or torch fuel in a citronella lamp, but could not be the contents of an STP bottle, since those contents are a "medium aromatic product."

         The medical examiner for the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit, Dr. Michael Hunter, testified that Shores suffered multiple injuries to his head, as well as a laceration on his chin consistent with being struck by a garden hoe. Shores also suffered a fatal shotgun wound to the back of his head. There was no evidence of stippling, but the shot distribution around the wound indicated that the shot was fired from not that far in distance. Dr. Hunter opined that an X-ray of Shores' head showed that the shot was distributed in a downward trajectory, which was consistent with being shot while the victim was on the ground, facedown. Dr. Hunter opined that it was impossible for him to conclude whether Shores was unconscious after being struck multiple times by the garden hoe, but before being shot. Dr. Hunter also opined that it was impossible to say whether the blunt force injuries to Shores' head and neck not caused by the shotgun would have been lethal over time without the shotgun injury. Regardless, he concluded they were contributory to Shores' death. No defensive type of injuries were present.

         The jury found Wood guilty of first-degree murder under theories of premediated murder and felony murder, and guilty of burglary of a structure with a firearm, and robbery with a firearm.

         Penalty Phase

         During the penalty phase of Wood's trial, Wood called family members and friends.[4] Wood's older sister, Heather Griffin, testified about Wood's difficult childhood. Wood's older brother, Matthew Walker, and Wood's uncle, Jeffrey Wood, offered similar testimony about Wood's difficult childhood and the family's history of drug abuse. Pat Lindsey, a retired judicial assistant and friend of Heather Griffin, testified that Wood worked in the Geneva County, Alabama courthouse organizing traffic tickets when Wood was in middle school and was always respectable and nice, but acknowledged on cross examination that she had not been in contact with Wood since he graduated high school. Laura Kinman testified that Wood, a friend of her daughter, stayed in her home for a few months at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013. Wood made the family dinner, bought groceries for them without being asked, and redid her flower garden, but Kinman acknowledged that she never interacted with Wood when he was high on methamphetamine. Laura Kinman's daughter, Kacia Kinman, testified that she had known Wood since they were in the seventh grade. She described Wood as a "kind-hearted gentleman, " but also acknowledged that she had only seen Wood high on marijuana, and not methamphetamine. No mental health mitigation was presented.

         The trial court instructed the jury on three aggravating factors: (1) the capital felony was committed in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification (CCP); (2) the capital felony was committed while defendant was engaged, or was an accomplice in the commission of, or an attempt to commit burglary and/or robbery; and (3) the capital felony was committed for the purpose of avoiding arrest. The trial court also instructed the jury to consider any other mitigating circumstances based on the defendant's character, background, or life, or any other circumstance of the offense. By a unanimous vote, the jury recommended that Wood be sentenced to death for the murder of Shores. A Spencer[5] hearing was held thereafter, where the State presented victim-impact testimony from the victim's daughter, brother, and niece.

         In sentencing Wood, the trial court found each of the three aggravating factors on which it instructed the jury: (1) the capital felony was committed in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification (CCP) (very great weight); (2) the capital felony was committed while defendant was engaged, or was an accomplice in the commission of, or an attempt to commit burglary and/or robbery (great weight); and (3) the capital felony was committed for the purpose of avoiding arrest (great weight). The trial court rejected all statutory mitigating circumstances except for the defendant's capability of employment and contribution to workforce (little weight), and the defendant's family background and abusive childhood (some weight). Additionally, the trial court found that Wood had proven the following nonstatutory mitigating circumstances: (1) the defendant had good jail conduct pending and during trial (very little weight); (2) the defendant's education (little weight); (3) the defendant has support from loving siblings and friends (little weight); and (4) the defendant's cooperation with law enforcement (little weight). The court rejected as a nonstatutory mitigating circumstance that the defendant showed remorse. After finding the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating circumstances, the trial court sentenced Wood to death for the murder of Shores.

         ANALYSIS

         Wood raises five claims on appeal: (1) the evidence is insufficient to support Wood's conviction as a principal to premediated first-degree murder; (2) Wood's death sentence is disproportionate because the evidence did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Wood's mental state amounted to reckless indifference and more culpable defendants have received life sentences; (3) the trial court erred in applying the CCP and avoid arrest aggravating factors vicariously to Wood; (4); the trial court erred in rejecting as mitigating Wood's drug abuse history and his remorse; and (5) Wood's death sentence must be vacated under Hurst v. Florida, 136 S.Ct. 616 (2016). We conclude that the interaction of two of the claims-that the trial court erred in instructing the jury on and then finding the CCP and avoid arrest aggravating factors, and also erred in rejecting the mitigating circumstance of Wood's drug abuse history-renders Wood's death sentence disproportionate. When considering the remaining single aggravating factor of the contemporaneous felony of robbery and burglary, we find that this murder is not among the most aggravated and least mitigated. Thus, we are compelled to vacate Wood's death sentence.[6]

         We begin our analysis with our mandatory obligation to independently determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support Wood's conviction for first-degree murder.

         I. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         "[T]his Court has a mandatory obligation to review the sufficiency of the evidence in every case in which a sentence of death has been imposed." Yacob v. State, 136 So.3d 539, 545 (Fla. 2014); Fla. R. App. P. 9.142(a)(5) ("[I]n death penalty cases, whether or not insufficiency of the evidence or proportionality is an issue presented for review, the court shall review these issues and, if necessary, remand for the appropriate relief."). In determining the sufficiency of the evidence, our inquiry is "whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, a rational trier of fact could have found the existence of the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Simmons v. State, 934 So.2d 1100, 1111 (Fla. 2006) (quoting Bradley v. State, 787 So.2d 732, 738 (Fla. 2001)).

         Wood was charged with first-degree murder under both premeditated murder and felony-murder theories. See § 782.04, Fla. Stat. (2008). The jury found Wood guilty under both theories by a special verdict form. The felony-murder conviction was based on the jury finding Wood guilty of burglary of a structure with a firearm and robbery with a firearm.

         The evidence presented established that Wood entered the "abandoned house" on Shores' property, and, in the words of Wood, "plunder[ed]" the house. Additionally, Shores' old checkbook was found on the dashboard of the Jeep; Wood was in possession of Shores' wallet and credit card and change from Shores' car; and Wood purchased and attempted to purchase various items hours after the murder with Shores' credit card. Based on a review of the evidence presented in this case, a "rational trier of fact could have found the existence of the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Simmons, 934 So.2d at 1111.

         We conclude that the record contains competent, substantial evidence to support his conviction of first-degree murder, as well as his conviction of armed burglary of a structure and armed robbery. Accordingly, we affirm Wood's murder conviction. We now address Wood's claim that the trial court erred in applying ...


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