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Davis 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. 662013CF000124CFAXMX

          Andy Thomas, Public Defender, and Richard M. Bracey, III, Assistant Public Defender, Second Judicial Circuit, Tallahassee, Florida, for Appellant

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, and Jennifer L. Keegan, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, for Appellee

          PER CURIAM.

         Barry Trynell Davis, Jr., appeals his convictions and sentences of death for the murders of John Gregory Hughes and Heidi Ann Rhodes. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const. For the reasons that follow, we affirm Davis's convictions but vacate the sentences of death and remand for a new penalty phase pursuant to Hurst v. State (Hurst), 202 So.3d 40 (Fla. 2016), petition for cert. filed, No.16-998 (U.S. Feb. 13, 2017), due to the jury's nonunanimous recommendations of death for both victims, which are not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.


         The murders occurred on May 7, 2012. At the time of the murders, Davis was twenty-six years old and had one child, Andreian ("Drey"), with Tiffani Steward, his on-and-off girlfriend of several years.

         The victims, John Gregory Hughes and Heidi Ann Rhodes, were last seen on May 7, 2012. Hughes was forty-nine years old. Rhodes was almost forty-one years old. Rhodes' dog, Molly, who went almost everywhere with Rhodes, was also missing. At the time of their disappearance, Hughes and Rhodes had been dating for approximately one year. The victims lived together in Hughes' house in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, although Rhodes also rented another property.

         Davis and Hughes knew each other from previously being incarcerated at the same time. According to witnesses, the two stayed in contact after their independent releases. Davis sold drugs to Hughes.

         On May 9, 2012, Rhodes' employer, Ray Webb, became concerned about Rhodes' well-being after she did not show up for an appointment. Webb drove to Hughes' house and Rhodes' house and found no one at either place. There was no sign of Molly at either house. Webb, however, noticed "a lot of cleaning materials, buckets and mops and things sitting in the edge of the driveway" of Hughes' house.

         A few days later, Webb reported Rhodes missing. At Webb's request, the Walton County Sheriff's Office (WCSO) went to Hughes' house to conduct a welfare check on Rhodes. WCSO found no persons or vehicles present, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

         WCSO then received a missing-persons report from Rhodes' sister, Cecaire McPherson. Rhodes' family had become worried when Rhodes did not contact her mother on Mother's Day. WCSO conducted welfare checks on Rhodes at both Rhodes' house, which appeared to be in a normal, lived-in condition, and Hughes' house, which appeared to be empty. When the welfare checks did not locate Hughes or Rhodes, WCSO initiated missing-person investigations.

         Rhodes' sisters also went to Rhodes' house and Hughes' house looking for the victims. Both houses were vacant, and Rhodes' mailbox was completely filled. When they looked inside Hughes' house, they saw a commercial mop bucket in the middle of the living room floor. The only furniture in Hughes' house was a pool table, and it looked like the TV had been pulled off the wall. Hughes' 2003 Cadillac Escalade EXT was not visible on the property.

         Officers were led to Davis as a person of interest in Hughes' and Rhodes' disappearance through a series of transactions on Hughes' bank card and several checks written to the order of Davis from Hughes' bank account. When asked about Hughes' disappearance in a series of interviews, Davis told officers that Hughes paid him to load Hughes' furniture into a rental truck and to later clean and manage Hughes' residential property. Davis stated that (1) he last saw Hughes and Rhodes when they left Hughes' house in the rental truck full of furniture, though he did not know where Hughes moved or how to contact him; (2) he remembered Hughes saying that he was moving to Barbados to hide from people to whom he owed money for drugs;[1] and (3) Molly no longer belonged to Rhodes.

         On June 18, 2012, officers executed a search warrant on a storage unit at Freeport Storage that Davis and Donna Gee, Davis's friend, were renting. Inside the storage unit, officers found four barstools that belonged to Hughes.[2] Also that day, investigators interviewed Cecil Galloway, Davis's friend, who said he had helped Davis move furniture out of a house in Santa Rosa Beach. Galloway did not remember seeing a male owner or female at the house but remembered that, when he arrived, "the dressers [in the house] were already emptied, " although "the house appeared to have everything in it." According to Galloway, everything in the house was loaded into a yellow Ryder pick-up truck in about three hours.

         On July 10, 2012, officers executed a search warrant on Davis's home in Argyle, Florida, [3] looking for Hughes' Regions Bank debit card, which they did not find. Later that day, Davis was arrested for grand theft of Hughes' vehicle and credit card fraud related to use of Hughes' bank card.

         While Davis was in jail, law enforcement officers interviewed Steward several times. However, she was not forthcoming with information. On September 25, 2012, Davis was released from jail. Following his release, Davis and Steward moved from Argyle to Destin, Florida and rented for several months a house referred to as "the Grand Key Loop house."

         In October 2012, WCSO found Hughes' Escalade, which had been reported stolen, parked in the back of Kenneth Ingram's property in DeFuniak Springs, Florida, covered by a tarp. Ingram told officers that Davis had asked to park the Escalade on his property. Upon searching the Escalade, officers discovered that the back bench seat was missing, and the back carpet had been roughly cut out. The carpet remaining inside the Escalade had bleach stains, and the interior was covered in mold. Cadaver dogs used in law enforcement's investigation detected human remains inside the Escalade. Galloway stated that he last saw the vehicle at Davis's home in Argyle, where he helped Davis remove the seat and carpet, which Galloway remembered being moist. According to Galloway, when he asked Davis why they were removing the seat and carpet from the Escalade, Davis said that a body had been in the vehicle. Galloway also reported seeing remnants of burnt carpet at Davis's home in Argyle. Likewise, Steward recalled Davis burning the back seat of the Escalade at his home in Argyle.

         On November 12, 2012, Steward met in secret with Investigator Armstrong at her and Davis's previous home. Eventually, the interview was relocated to the sheriff's office, where Chief Assistant State Attorney Greg Anchors and Steward's attorney were also present. After the interview, Armstrong arrested Steward under a warrant for dealing in stolen property and took her to jail.

         The next day, Steward, with her attorney, met with the State Attorney and recounted the entire story of what she witnessed on May 7, 2012, and the weeks following. Steward was told she would be given immunity for testifying against Davis. While Steward had previously withheld information from law enforcement as to the details of what happened that night, she was the only witness, other than Davis, who could recount at trial what happened at Hughes' house that night.

         Steward testified at trial that, on May 7, 2012, Davis was on his way to Hughes' house when he stopped to see Steward. Because she did not trust that Davis was loyal in their relationship, Steward demanded that she go with him. On their way, Davis told Steward that he knew Hughes was wealthy and intended to kidnap Hughes and hold him for ransom. When they arrived at Hughes' house, Steward observed that Hughes did not seem to be expecting Davis. Nevertheless, Hughes invited Davis and Steward to come inside and stay for dinner.

         Before dinner, Steward drove Rhodes to Publix to purchase beverages. Before they left the house, Hughes gave Rhodes his debit card with the PIN to use for the purchase. At Publix, Steward waited in the car while Rhodes went inside. While Steward waited in the car for Rhodes, Davis called Steward's cell phone several times, telling her to return to Hughes' house immediately.

         When Steward and Rhodes returned to Hughes' house, Steward entered through the front door ahead of Rhodes. According to Steward, when Rhodes entered, Davis grabbed her, began strangling and hitting her, and told Steward to lock the door. Davis rendered Rhodes unconscious and then "drug [Rhodes] into the bedroom" by her foot.

         Steward testified at trial that she saw Hughes' body lying motionless on the floor in the master bedroom and heard noises that sounded like snoring coming from Hughes. According to Steward, "there was blood everywhere"-around Hughes' head and on the floor, wall, and nightstand in the master bedroom and on Davis's clothing. In her statement to police that was read at trial, Steward said Davis told her that while she and Rhodes were at Publix, "he made Hughes open a safe and there was pills, weed, and car title in the safe." Then, "[Davis] said Hughes tried to run to his cell phone located on the night stand." Steward told police that when she saw the blood, Hughes was lying in front of the night stand.

         After both Hughes and Rhodes were unconscious and in the master bedroom, Davis began filling the bathtub in the master bathroom with water. While the bathtub was filling, Davis asked Steward to get his backpack out of the car. Steward did not know what was in the backpack.

         Steward testified that when she returned with the backpack, Davis took duct tape out of the backpack and "wrapped it around [Hughes' and Rhodes'] ankles." While Davis wrapped their ankles with duct tape, the victims' heads and shoulders were submerged in the bathtub. At this point, Steward thought she heard a noise and told Davis that the victims were still alive, to which Davis responded that the noise was just gas leaving their bodies and that the victims were dead.

         Throughout the events that took place at Hughes' house on May 7, 2012, Steward begged Davis to let her leave and return home to their son, Drey. Finally, after the victims were submerged and bound in the bathtub, Davis let Steward leave Hughes' house and indicated that he would be right behind her. Steward testified that she last saw the victims submerged in the bathtub in the master bathroom of Hughes' house. Steward left Hughes' house in her Ford Edge that she and Davis had driven to Hughes' house that night. Davis left Hughes' house in Hughes' Escalade, following Steward. Davis told Steward that he would return later to Hughes' house to "clean up and get the bodies." Steward testified that Davis threatened "that he would kill [her] family . . . if [she] ever said anything [or] admitt[ed] to being there with him" that night. Steward testified that she believed these threats to be credible because Davis had previously threatened her family's safety.

         In the days following the murders, Davis returned to Hughes' house to clean, which included bleaching Hughes' entire house and removing a portion of drywall that was covered in blood. Davis told Steward that "he pulled the wall out at the house, the wall that Mr. Hughes was laying on the floor beside, because there was blood everywhere." Investigator Sunday stated that "a large section of drywall [in Hughes' house] . . . appeared to have been cut away and did not appear to be anywhere on the premises." Steward testified that Davis told her that "he wrapped [the bodies] up and put them in the Escalade for a couple of days."

         The next time Steward saw Davis-a day or two after the murders-he was dragging a blue container from behind his house over to a burn pit. Steward remembered that the "blue container" "smelled really bad, and it looked like it was really heavy." Steward assumed the victims' bodies were inside the container. Davis later told Steward that he had cut up the victims' bodies and burned them in the burn pit. During her deposition, Steward remembered that she heard Davis using a saw late one night. She said that she believed Davis used a saw to cut up the victims' bodies before burning them.[4] Steward also remembered Davis "bleaching the porch around the same area that [she] heard the saw." Steward also saw a bench car seat in the burn pit at Davis's house, which she knew was from Hughes' Escalade.

         Davis told Steward that he gave a bag of ashes to Galloway, who did not know what the bag contained, and told him to dispose of it. Steward also told law enforcement officers that she saw Davis hand Galloway a trash bag. Galloway confirmed to law enforcement that Davis gave him a trash bag of burned wood and ashes in June 2012 and told him to get rid of it, which he placed into the garbage can at the end of the driveway at Davis's house in Argyle.[5]

         In the weeks following the murders, Davis rented a U-Haul[6] and moved Hughes' furniture and personal belongings out of Hughes' house. Hughes' family testified that several of these items had sentimental value and had been passed down through Hughes' family. Davis hired "laborers" to help him load Hughes' furniture into the moving truck. Davis paid the laborers in cash and gave them several of Hughes' items, including scuba tanks, fishing rods and reels, and pool cues. Davis instructed those close to him to lie consistent with his story-for example, that the rental truck was a Ryder truck rather than a U-Haul. Hughes' neighbors testified to seeing a moving truck outside Hughes' house around this time. Davis took some of Hughes' furniture to a storage unit at Freeport Storage, which he and Gee rented. Other furniture was taken to Davis's home. At Davis's instruction, Steward sold some of Hughes' belongings to pawn shops and on Craigslist.

         In the weeks following, Davis forged three of Hughes' checks, which he wrote out to himself. Davis also checked the voicemail on Hughes' cell phone and used Hughes' cell phone to call the 800 number on Hughes' bank cards to check the account balances. In its sentencing order, the trial court stated that Davis "looted John Gregory's Hughes's bank accounts and stole nearly every piece of property from his home."

         Once Steward began cooperating with law enforcement, she gave Investigator Armstrong permission to enter the Grand Key Loop house. Steward then directed officers to some of Hughes' clothes that were inside the house. Armstrong and Steward then went to Hughes' house for Steward to show Armstrong what happened on May 7, 2012. That same day, Davis was arrested for a narcotics violation during a traffic stop due to an outstanding arrest warrant from Okaloosa County, Florida. During that stop, officers found a ...

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