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Cozzie v. State

Supreme Court of Florida

May 11, 2017



         An Appeal from the Circuit Court in and for Walton County, Kelvin Clyde Wells, Judge - Case No. 662011CF000353CFAXMX.

          Andy Thomas, Public Defender, and Nada M. Carey, Assistant Public Defender, Second Judicial Circuit, Tallahassee, Florida, for Appellant

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida; and Melissa J. Roca, Assistant Attorney General, Miami, Florida, for Appellee

          PER CURIAM.

         Steven Anthony Cozzie appeals his conviction for first-degree premeditated or felony murder with a weapon and his sentence of death. For the reasons below, we affirm.[1]


         The evidence presented at trial established that, on June 13, 2011, the victim, 15-year-old Courtney Wilkes, and her mother, father, and two younger siblings arrived in Seagrove Beach in Walton County for a family vacation. On the first day of their stay, several members of the Wilkes family encountered the defendant, 21-year-old Steven Cozzie, at the beach outside their condominium. Courtney's mother testified that, at the time, she believed Cozzie worked for the company that provided the condominium's beach chairs and umbrellas because he offered to put away all the other beach chairs before theirs. In the two days that followed, Mrs. Wilkes testified to seeing Cozzie around the beach but to having no conversations with him or seeing him with any of her children.

         On June 16, 2011, the day before they were scheduled to return home to Georgia, the entire Wilkes family spent time together at the beach. After lunch, Courtney "bounced over" to where her parents were sitting and asked permission to go on a walk with Cozzie. Believing that Cozzie was in the same age group as their daughter, Courtney's parents gave her permission. At approximately 1:15 p.m., Mr. and Mrs. Wilkes watched their daughter walk with Cozzie eastward along the shore, lost sight of them after a few minutes, and never saw Courtney alive again.

         The Wilkes reported Courtney missing that same day after their independent search for her failed. Within hours, Michael Spencer, a friend of Cozzie's, alerted police that Cozzie had told him he killed the missing girl and that Cozzie had also taken him to see her body. Spencer then led sheriff's deputies to the body at the Cassine Gardens Nature Trail, and Cozzie was arrested that same evening.

         At Cozzie's 2013 trial, Spencer testified that, in the days leading up to Courtney's murder, Cozzie talked to him about "[r]aping and killing underage girls and women his own age, " including how "[Cozzie] would want to tie them up and just practically rape them and then kill them. . . . Because you just raped somebody's daughter or somebody's mother, why not kill them."

         Spencer testified that, at the time, he thought Cozzie was only describing fantasies. However, on the day of Courtney's murder, Spencer said that Cozzie came to see him at the apartment where he was staying that summer and told Spencer, "I just killed this chick." Spencer testified that he did not believe Cozzie at first, but after they left the apartment, rather than head toward the beach, Cozzie led him to the nature trial where he said he had killed the girl.

         Spencer testified that, once they got to the nature trail, Cozzie pointed out a disturbed area in the pine straw at the end of the wooden boardwalk and said, "I wrestled with her for like 20 minutes right there." Then, Spencer testified that Cozzie took him several yards off the boardwalk to see the body, which was on the other side of a fallen tree. Spencer further testified that the victim's body was nude, a bloody blue shirt was covering her head, and he could tell she was not breathing. Spencer said that Cozzie picked up the shirt and threw it into the bushes, and with the shirt removed, he saw that the victim's hair was bloody, and "[i]t looked like there was a hole" in her head.

         Spencer also testified to details Cozzie told him about the murder on the way to the nature trail and in the few minutes they were at the scene. Specifically, Cozzie told Spencer that he met the girl on the beach and took her for a walk, but when they arrived at the nature trail, she turned around to go back, and Cozzie "strangled her with his shirt, then with her shirt, then with his bare hands; he stomped on the back of her neck and then found some sort of piece of wood and bashed her head in repeatedly."

         Spencer further testified to things Cozzie told him he said and thought during the attack. For example, Spencer said Cozzie told him "that he was yelling at [the victim] for her to take her clothes off" and further described his thoughts as he picked up the piece of wood he used to beat the victim: "I stood there next to her and looked at the piece of wood; do you want to use the flat end or the side; the flat end or the side. And then . . . I said f*ck it and just started hitting her in the head with the side of it. . . . Bam, bam; I bashed her head in like ten times with it."

         The medical examiner testified that the cause of death was from the combined effects of blunt impact to the head and strangulation. She further testified to the victim's numerous injuries, including: Skull fractures were visible through a laceration in the scalp, and the victim's skull had been shattered into 16 pieces in a 5-inch-by-five-inch area by at least two (but probably more) blows to the head. There were large scratches on the victim's neck extending down to the upper chest, and injuries to the shoulder that appeared to be from glancing blows that missed the victim's head. A splinter was pulled from the wound overlying the skull fractures, and the head injuries were consistent with having been inflicted by a wooden piece of lumber or a piece of a tree.

         The medical examiner further testified that the victim had been choked or strangled with force extreme enough to bruise her esophagus. The strangulation was more consistent with ligature strangulation, and could have been from a bikini top or a shirt, and there was bruising on the inner lips indicating some type of smothering. There were mirror-image abrasions to the inside of both of the victim's inner thighs that were consistent with hip bones thrusting into the thigh area. The outer labia had abrasions or scrapes caused by a penis, finger, or some type of instrument that caused blunt or frictional force; these injuries were consistent with contact to the vagina and definitely showed contact to the labia. Vertically oriented abrasions on the victim's back and buttocks were consistent with being dragged, and numerous contusions and abrasions on the victim's body looked like they could have been made by rolling around on the ground. There were no markings on the back of the victim's neck consistent with the claim that it had been stomped, and there were no defensive injuries of note; however, all of the injuries were caused prior to death, and one of the victim's hands was bloody, which indicated that it was probably near one of her injuries.

         No semen was found in the victim's rape kit or in swabs taken from her thighs. However, DNA analysis linked Cozzie to numerous items recovered at the scene, including the victim's bikini bottoms, sunglasses on which the victim's blood was found, a blue multi-colored shirt on which the victim's blood was found, and a swab from the victim's left thigh. DNA testing also excluded Spencer as a contributor to all items tested, except for one item for which there was not enough DNA present to exclude or include anyone. The victim's DNA matched a swab taken from under Cozzie's fingernail at 12 of 13 genetic markers. Blood on a cut piece of lumber recovered from a pile of wood between the victim's head and the fallen log behind which her body was located matched the victim's DNA.

         Prior to trial, Cozzie (who did not testify during any phase of the proceeding) gave two statements to police. In the first, he denied that he did anything other than walk with Courtney and denied that he took Spencer to see her body. In the second, Cozzie said that Courtney fell and hit her head and was rendered unconscious, he went and got Spencer for help, and Spencer forced him to kill Courtney at gunpoint. The jury heard recordings of both of these interviews. However, just prior to closing argument, defense counsel notified the trial court that Cozzie intended to concede that he killed Courtney as part of a strategy to argue for the lesser-included offense of second-degree murder. During his closing arguments, defense counsel acknowledged that Cozzie killed Courtney and that it was unlawful to do so and further argued that Cozzie had told a "tale that Michael Spencer made him do it, " but that Spencer had exaggerated the details. Defense counsel asked the jury to find Cozzie guilty of second-degree murder.

         On June 14, 2013, Cozzie's jury found him guilty of first-degree premeditated murder or felony murder with a weapon; sexual battery with a deadly weapon or force likely to cause serious personal injury; aggravated child abuse causing great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement; and kidnapping with a weapon with intent to commit a felony.

         During the penalty phase, the State presented testimony of Courtney's mother, father, and godfather as victim impact evidence. The State also presented testimony from five witnesses who testified regarding Cozzie's alleged attack on a 14-year-old girl on the same nature trail, just one week prior to Courtney's murder.

         Cozzie presented penalty phase testimony from one person in support of his argument that he did not attack another girl on the nature trail. He also presented testimony from seven family members, one long-time friend, and two mental health experts, Dr. Steven Gold, a forensic psychologist, and Dr. Stephen Zieman, a clinical psychologist with a specialty in clinical neuropsychology.

         Dr. Gold testified to Cozzie's deprived childhood, which included physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal and emotional abuse, emotional and physical neglect, parental separation, homelessness, domestic violence, lack of positive role models and structure, and being surrounded by people who may have been mentally ill and who used drugs and alcohol. Dr. Gold further testified that Cozzie has difficulty reading social cues; heard voices and experienced command hallucinations; has PTSD as a result of physical abuse and being raped by his stepbrother;[2] has a history of depression; experienced sleep disorders, dissociative reactions, and blackouts; was possibly psychotic; was probably born with deficits as a result of oxygen deprivation caused by the umbilical cord being wrapped around his neck; never developed the ability to recognize and then control his emotions; and was unable to manage the tasks of daily living and maintain interpersonal relationships.

         On cross-examination, when the State sought to determine whether and how any of Cozzie's deficits may have affected him on the day of Courtney's murder, Dr. Gold testified that he was not employed "to express opinions about [Cozzie's] mental status at the time of the offense" and that he did "not have an opinion regarding [Cozzie's] mental state specifically at the time of the offense." However, Dr. Gold also testified on cross-examination that Cozzie had the capacity to appreciate the criminality of what he did to the victim and knew it was legally and morally wrong to "strangle her, sexually assault her[, ] and beat her skull to bits, " but stated "it's possible" that Cozzie's "compromised functioning, his dissociative or psychotic experiences may have negatively impacted his ability" to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law at the time of the murder. Dr. Gold further testified that Cozzie told him the victim made a statement which Cozzie "interpreted as indicating that he was a creep and the next thing he knew he came to finding that he was choking her." In addition, Dr. Gold testified that there were "no indicators or indications that would suggest [Cozzie] might suffer from . . . anti-social personality disorder, " although he acknowledged that Cozzie met some of the criteria for the diagnosis, including failure to plan ahead and lack of remorse.

         Cozzie's other mental health expert, Dr. Zieman, testified that Cozzie has an IQ of 83. Dr. Zieman further testified that "Cozzie's brain does not work in the exact same way as it should for most others his age" and identified executive functioning as Cozzie's "most difficult area." Although Dr. Zieman testified that Cozzie was intelligent enough to plan, to rape, and to know it was morally wrong and unlawful, in his opinion, Cozzie does not have "the ability to plan a multi-step plan." Dr. Zieman also testified that if Cozzie had come to him in his clinical practice, he would have recommended "a guarantor or a conservator; somebody to help him navigate through the world because he just doesn't seem to understand the way - - the way things work in relationship to the way he thinks."

         To rebut the testimony of Cozzie's mental health experts, the State called Dr. Harry McClaren, a forensic psychologist. Dr. McClaren testified that he examined Cozzie on two separate days and that there was no evidence Cozzie had bipolar disorder or schizophrenia and that Cozzie's "mental associations were firm, logical, [and] relevant." Dr. McClaren further testified that he examined Cozzie to determine his mental status at the time of the crimes and whether any of the statutory mental health mitigators applied, and, over Cozzie's objection, Dr. McClaren testified to aspects of Cozzie's factual account of the crime that he used to arrive at his opinion.

         Specifically, Dr. McClaren testified that Cozzie described his attack on the victim as a reaction to something that the victim said that "made [him] feel small, pushed [him] to [his] limit, made [him] feel inadequate and angry, " and testified that Cozzie told him:

I put a shirt around her neck as she turned to walk back . . . to make her feel small. I put the ligature around her neck a lot. I knew that I couldn't control myself. I pulled it and turned it so I could pull her down, me and her went down. It was more fall[ing] to the ground. She was between my knees.
Then I tried to rip her aqua shirt and bikini top off. I pulled it off, untied the strings. . . . I think she was passed out at that time due to my use of my shirt. Her back was bare. . . . I took off her shorts, her bathing suit and bottom. She was lying there but trying to wake up. I had both of my shoulders between her legs.
I then saw the pad and not the tampon kind but like a Kotex. So I saw blood. Then I started feeling against it as far as going down on her and raping her. I found a small board thinking she's going to wake up and know who I am at the beach. I thought I could knock her out so she wouldn't remember it.
I kind of put her shirt around her neck. She's naked. I thought I'll be in so much trouble so I took the little board and hit her twice or three times. I saw blood. I grabbed the shirt, put it across her neck, dragged her to the tree. I saw blood coming. I used my shirt to prevent the blood from going in her mouth and nose.
Before and after palm fronds were put on her [so that she could not be easily seen]. And she was still breathing when I left . . . . I didn't know what to do. However, I had known I had done an act of violence.
I went to the only person. I went two miles on a bike to his house. I told him I think I killed a girl. I was shaking. Scared. He gave me a Sprite. I told him what happened. I lost my nerve. I stripped her down and hit her due to being put down. I had been put down -

         Dr. McClaren opined that "the strangling with the shirt, dragging away, covering up, [and g]oing to get help" showed that Cozzie "did not lose control of executive functioning, that he had in fact the ability to have executive thoughts and carry out those executive thoughts." In terms of a diagnosis, Dr. McClaren testified that Cozzie has paraphilia, a history of ADHD, a history of oppositional defiant disorder, and a history of learning disabilities. Dr. McClaren further diagnosed Cozzie with antisocial personality disorder, and in explaining how Cozzie met the criteria for the disorder testified (over defense counsel's objection and motion for a mistrial, but pursuant to the trial court's direction to "get on to the diagnosis") that he "did not see scarcely any remorse[, ] hear any expression of remorse" from Cozzie.

         Dr. McClaren further testified that neither of the statutory mental health mitigators applied to Cozzie and that he believed the crime was planned rather than committed in a dissociative episode caused by Cozzie's PTSD. Dr. McClaren testified that Cozzie's alleged statements to Michael Spencer about planning to rape and kill young females as well as Cozzie's alleged assault on another young girl the week before his crimes against the victim "play[ed] into his opinion [that this was not] a post-traumatic stress disorder reaction" and "it would be more consistent with a person having these kinds of sexual fantasies, violent sexual fantasies."

         Following the penalty phase presentation, on June 20, 2013, the jury recommended the death penalty by a vote of twelve to zero, and a Spencer[3] hearing was held on August 22, 2013, at which no additional witnesses testified. Thereafter, concluding that the aggravating circumstances[4] "far outweigh" the mitigating circumstances, [5] the trial court sentenced Cozzie to death in accordance with the jury's recommendation.


         Cozzie raises the following issues on appeal: (1) whether the trial court erred in denying his challenges for cause against two prospective jurors; (2) whether the trial court abused its discretion in allowing the rebuttal testimony of the State's mental health expert; (3) whether the trial court erred in finding the avoid arrest aggravator; (4) whether the State's penalty phase evidence became an improper feature of the penalty phase; and (5) whether Florida's capital sentencing scheme is unconstitutional under Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002). We also review whether the evidence is sufficient to support Cozzie's conviction and whether his death sentence is proportionate. As explained below, none of these issues warrants relief.

         1. ...

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