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Guzman v. State

Supreme Court of Florida

April 6, 2017

VICTOR GUZMAN, 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 Miami-Dade County, Dennis James Murphy, Judge - Case No. 132004CF0153890001XX

          Carlos J. Martinez, Public Defender, and Andrew Stanton, Assistant Public Defender, Eleventh Judicial Circuit, Miami, Florida, for Appellant

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, and Charmaine M. Millsaps and Berdene B. Beckles, Assistant Attorneys General, Tallahassee, Florida, for Appellee

          PER CURIAM.

         Victor Guzman appeals his conviction of first-degree murder and sentence of death. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const. For the reasons explained below, we affirm Guzman's conviction but reverse his sentence of death and remand this case to the trial court for a new penalty phase.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On December 9, 2000, Severina Fernandez was found stabbed to death in her Miami apartment. The case went cold until 2004, when DNA from blood left at the crime scene was determined to match Victor Guzman's DNA. As a result, Guzman was indicted for first-degree murder, stood trial, and was convicted. The jury recommended a sentence of death by a vote of seven to five, and the trial court followed the jury's recommendation. This appeal follows.

         A. Guilt Phase

         Severina "Lola" Fernandez was an eighty-year-old widow who lived alone in her Miami apartment. She was last seen alive around 3:30 p.m. on December 9, 2000, when she went out to retrieve her newspaper. At approximately 6:15 p.m., a neighbor discovered Fernandez's door was half open and, when Fernandez did not answer, the neighbor entered the apartment where she found Fernandez stabbed to death on her bed. Fernandez's body was nude. Her dress was underneath her, covered in blood with stab holes and a torn zipper. Her panties, which had been pulled down and were dangling off of her right leg, also had stab holes in them. The evidence suggested that Fernandez was killed shortly after she returned from getting the newspaper.

         There was blood throughout the apartment, which was swabbed for DNA analysis. A plastic cup, which appeared to be out of place on the recliner in the living room, was also swabbed for DNA analysis.

         Initial DNA analysis conducted in 2000 revealed that a single male DNA profile was present on swabs of blood obtained from inside the kitchen sink, the floor of the bedroom to the west of the bed, and the bedroom dresser. That same male DNA profile could not be excluded as a contributor to a mixture of DNA profiles obtained from the cup found on the recliner. Specimens from a sexual battery kit done on Fernandez tested negative for the presence of sperm.

         In 2003, the case was assigned to Detective Andres Arostegui, a member of the cold case homicide division. Detective Arostegui testified that he learned of information[1] in 2004 that led him to suspect that Guzman was responsible for Fernandez's murder. Based on this information, Detective Arostegui interviewed Guzman several days later.

         After being advised of his constitutional rights, Guzman agreed to speak with Detective Arostegui. Detective Arostegui told Guzman that he was investigating a homicide. When shown pictures of Fernandez and her apartment building, Guzman denied knowing her or ever having been to her building. According to Detective Arostegui, Guzman's demeanor was nervous and fidgety at times during the three-hour interview but he repeatedly denied any involvement in the homicide. During the last forty-five minutes of the interview, Guzman stated that he was sorry two or three times, but he would not explain what he was sorry for. Detective Arostegui kept talking to Guzman and saying to him, "I know you did it." Guzman then started asking for bathroom breaks, which struck Detective Arostegui as "awkward." Guzman eventually invoked his right to counsel, and questioning ceased.

         After a DNA standard was obtained from Guzman, the crime lab confirmed that the male DNA profile obtained from the sink and the cup found in Fernandez's apartment matched Guzman's DNA profile. Further analysis in 2005 revealed that two other bloodstains in Fernandez's apartment also matched Guzman's DNA profile. At trial, evidence was presented that the chance of finding the same DNA profile as the profile obtained from the male blood in Fernandez's apartment in an individual at random in the population at large is 1 in 153 trillion. The likelihood of a random match between Guzman and the DNA mixture on the cup in Fernandez's apartment was 1 in 5, 099, 000.

         The medical examiner, Dr. Lew, testified regarding the results of the autopsy performed on Fernandez. According to Dr. Lew, Fernandez was an eighty-year-old woman with an enlarged heart, an artificial heart valve, and flat feet. The autopsy revealed that "the cause of death was multiple stab wounds and trauma to the neck or strangulation." Fernandez suffered a total of fifty-eight stab and incised wounds covering multiple areas of her body. Two of the wounds to her chest penetrated the aorta and were individually fatal. There were also incised wounds to both sides of Fernandez's neck, which would have bled profusely. Many of the wounds to Fernandez's torso were deep enough to penetrate the abdominal wall but not deep enough to penetrate the bowel or other internal organs. Two of the torso wounds nicked the liver. There were at least five wounds to the fingers, which were likely defensive wounds. Fernandez also suffered blunt trauma to her head while she was still alive, consistent with being struck. Her hyoid bone was fractured, indicating that a great deal of pressure was applied to both sides of her neck. According to Dr. Lew, at least several minutes passed from the time the attack began until Fernandez died.

         It appeared to Dr. Lew that Fernandez was either sexually assaulted or an attempt to sexually assault her had been made because her clothing was torn off, her panties were hanging off her right ankle, and bloodstain patterns on her body indicated that her "left leg was raised up enough so that her thigh was contacting her abdomen in order to pull her panties off her left leg." There were also blood smears on the insides of her thighs, which likely indicated that bloodied hands tried to push her thighs apart. Although there was no trauma to the vaginal area, Dr. Lew testified that the absence of trauma was not conclusive evidence that no sexual assault occurred.

         Guzman did not testify at trial, and the defense rested without calling any witnesses. The jury found Guzman guilty of first-degree murder.

         B. Penalty Phase

         At the penalty phase, the State introduced a certified copy of the judgment evincing Guzman's prior convictions for attempted felony murder, lewd or lascivious battery on a child twelve years of age or older but less than sixteen years of age, and aggravated battery causing great bodily harm. The State also elicited victim impact evidence and recalled Dr. Lew to testify further about the injuries Fernandez received during the attack.

         Guzman presented testimony from a number of his family members. The sum of their testimony established the following. Guzman was born into poverty in Peru. Guzman's father disciplined Guzman and his brother with whippings. Guzman's parents had a troubled relationship until his father left the family to marry another woman when Guzman was around six or seven years old. After the separation, Guzman's mother started drinking, and the boys were sometimes sent to live with their grandmother.

         When he was in his teens, Guzman started drinking and cutting himself. His drinking eventually led to many negative consequences, including eviction, deportation, termination of employment, and convictions for driving under the influence. In the late 1990s, Guzman moved to California, where some of his family members had relocated. He attempted to reunite with his father in California, but his father rejected him.

         Shortly before Fernandez's murder, Guzman lived with his brother, Juan Carlos, for a few months in Miami before Juan Carlos was deported. During that time, Guzman began to drink heavily, appeared depressed, was cutting himself, and was angry at his father. After his arrest in this case, Guzman "came to an understanding of peace" about his relationship with his father, who died before the trial.

         Guzman presented testimony from three expert witnesses. Two of the experts opined that Guzman was under extreme emotional distress at the time of the murder and discussed numerous points of nonstatutory mitigation, focused mainly on Guzman's upbringing, substance abuse, and cognitive functioning. The third expert testified that he saw nothing in Guzman's incarceration records to indicate that Guzman would be dangerous during future incarceration.

         Three volunteer prison chaplains testified that Guzman is a man of faith who conducts religious services in the jail. An inmate from Guzman's pod at the jail testified about the Bible study Guzman conducts in the pod and his belief that Guzman is remorseful and rehabilitated.

         Guzman did not testify at the penalty phase. The jury recommended a sentence of death by a vote of seven to five.

         C. Sentencing

         The trial court concluded that four aggravating circumstances were proven beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) the capital felony was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel (HAC) (extremely great weight); (2) Guzman was previously convicted of another capital felony or of a felony involving the use or threat of violence (great weight); (3) the capital felony was committed while Guzman was engaged in or attempting to commit a sexual battery (some weight); and (4) the victim of the capital felony was particularly vulnerable due to advanced age or disability (considerable weight). And after having considered and rejected the extreme mental or emotional disturbance mitigating circumstance and four nonstatutory mitigating circumstances, [2] the trial court found that no statutory mitigating circumstances and twenty-five nonstatutory mitigating circumstances were ...


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