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White v. State

Supreme Court of Florida

March 30, 2017

DWAYNE F. WHITE, Appellant,


         An Appeal from the Circuit Court in and for Seminole County, Kenneth Russell Lester, Judge - Case No. 592011CF004012A000XX

          James S. Purdy, Public Defender, and John M. Selden, Assistant Public Defender, Seventh Judicial Circuit, Daytona Beach, Florida, for Appellant.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida; and Vivian Singleton, Assistant Attorney General, Daytona Beach, Florida, for Appellee.

          PER CURIAM.

         Dwayne F. White, who was forty-one years old at the time of the offense, was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his estranged wife, Sarah Yvonne Rucker, who was forty-three years old at the time of her death. By a vote of eight to four, the jury recommended that White be sentenced to death, and the trial court imposed a death sentence. This is White's direct appeal of his conviction of first-degree murder and sentence of death. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const.

         For the reasons that follow, we affirm White's conviction of first-degree murder but vacate his death sentence because we cannot conclude that the Hurst v. State (Hurst), 202 So.3d 40 (Fla. 2016), error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, we remand his case to the circuit court for a new penalty phase.


         The evidence introduced at trial during the guilt phase established the following facts. Dwayne Fitzgerald White and the victim, Sarah Yvonne Rucker, had been involved in a romantic relationship since 1988. Although White and the victim were married at the time of the murder, they had become estranged and lived in separate houses. White lived in Orlando, Florida, with his girlfriend of eight years. The victim lived in a house she owned with White in Deltona, Florida, with their four children.

         At approximately two a.m. on August 29, 2011, White unexpectedly arrived at the victim's home. Dwayne White, Jr. ("Dwayne"), the couple's eldest son, who was approximately seventeen years old at the time of the incident, awoke to the sound of the dog barking and went to the window, where he saw his father, White, walking up the driveway.

         Dwayne called to his mother to alert her that White was outside, but White walked into the house and told Dwayne he wanted to speak with him. White spoke with Dwayne in his room for a few minutes while the victim went outside.

         At the end of the conversation with White, Dwayne stayed in his room while White walked outside to see the victim. Dwayne then heard his younger sister yelling for him. Dwayne went outside in response and observed a beer bottle flying toward the victim. He saw the victim on her back, with her hands up holding her cell phone, and White attempting to pry her phone from her hands. White eventually was able to take the phone and then got in his car and drove away. Dwayne had to restrain his mother from going after White as he left with her phone.

         Throughout the altercation the victim was on the phone with an emergency dispatcher, who was reached by dialing 911. She made five calls to 911 between 1:56 and 2:01 a.m. A recording of the calls was entered into evidence and played for the jury at trial. The victim can be heard on the calls telling White: "Don't hit Dwayne, stop the violence. You are so violent. Stop. Just stop." She also stated: "He scared me. I'm tired of this. He is always doing this. . . . I just need to get my phone back."

         The victim told the 911 operator that White came over to the house that night because he was mad that the victim was no longer romantically interested in him. At one point, the victim told the operator: "I'm going to have to get me a gun and blow his head off for coming into my yard." She continually emphasized how badly she needed to get her phone back and how important it was to her, even stating at one point, "I'm going to go find him myself." She told the operator that it was critical that she have her phone because she worked at a surgical center and was on call that night. She could be called in at a moment's notice and could be fired if she did not have her phone. The victim told the 911 operator this was not the first time this had happened. White had stolen two other phones from her and gone through all of her phone calls and text messages.

         Dwayne also saw White's pocket knife, which he often carried with him, clipped to his pants pocket that night. After White left, Dwayne left the house intending to go down the street to his neighbor's house to get a shotgun for protection in the event that White might return. Dwayne did not make it, however, as the victim went after him and was able to bring him home. Shortly thereafter, the police arrived at the victim's residence. White called Dwayne's phone while the police were there. Dwayne handed the phone to the officer, who intended to convince White to come back to the victim's house and return her phone; however, White immediately hung up.

         After the police left, White called Dwayne's phone again. When Dwayne answered the phone, White told him to go in to the bathroom by himself. White then told Dwayne that it was not Dwayne's place to be involved in his parents' business. White told Dwayne that he needed the victim to take back her report of the crime. At that point, the victim came into the bathroom, snatched Dwayne's phone, and began yelling at White that she needed her phone ...

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