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Serrano v. State

Supreme Court of Florida

May 11, 2017

JULIE L. JONES, etc., Respondent.


         An Appeal from the Circuit Court in and for Polk County, Donald G. Jacobsen, Chief Judge - Case No. 532001CF003262A0XXXX And an Original Proceeding - Habeas Corpus

          Robert S. Friedman, Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, Northern Region, Tallahassee, Florida; and Louis G. Carres, Special Assistant Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, Northern Region, West Palm Beach, Florida, for Appellant/Petitioner.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida; and Stephen D. Ake, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, Florida, for Appellee/Respondent.

          PER CURIAM.

         Nelson Serrano appeals the denial of his postconviction motion filed under Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.851 and petitions this Court for a writ of habeas corpus.[1] For the following reasons, we affirm the denial of his guilt phase postconviction claims, deny his habeas petition, but vacate his sentences, and remand for a new penalty phase.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2011, this Court affirmed Serrano's four convictions for first-degree murder and his four death sentences. Serrano v. State, 64 So.3d 93 (Fla. 2011). This Court explained the background of the case and murders as follows:

On May 17, 2001, Nelson Serrano was indicted under seal on four counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of George Gonsalves, Frank Dosso, Diane Patisso, and George Patisso. The murders occurred on December 3, 1997, at Erie Manufacturing and Garment Conveyor Systems in Bartow. George Gonsalves was one of Serrano's business partners. And Frank Dosso, Diane Patisso, and George Patisso were respectively the son, daughter, and son-in-law of Serrano's other business partner, Felice (Phil) Dosso. Serrano, a dual citizen of the United States and Ecuador, was arrested in Ecuador on August 31, 2002, and brought to the United States.
At the guilt phase, which occurred in 2006, the State presented the following evidence. In the 1960s, Phil Dosso and George Gonsalves started a tool and die business, Erie Manufacturing Cooperative, in New York. Their business provided parts to support the garment industry. In the 1980s, Phil Dosso and George Gonsalves met Nelson Serrano, who was working for a New Jersey company selling slick rail systems for the garment industry. In the middle of the 1980s, the three men created a separate company, Garment Conveyor Systems. Serrano was responsible for designing, selling, and installing slick rail systems, while Dosso and Gonsalves built the parts.
In the late 1980s, the partners moved the business to Bartow, Florida. At that time, they closed Erie Manufacturing Cooperative and transferred all the assets to Erie Manufacturing, Inc. As part of their oral agreement, Serrano bought into the Erie partnership and agreed to pay Phil Dosso and George Gonsalves $75, 000 each. Therefore, all three men were equal partners in both Garment Conveyor Systems and Erie Manufacturing. Garment moved to Bartow as well. Serrano's son, Francisco Serrano, began working at the business soon after they relocated to Bartow, and Phil Dosso's son, Frank Dosso, began working there at a later date. Phil Dosso's son-in-law, George Patisso, was also an employee of the business.
By the early 1990s, the business was doing well. However, friction between the three partners had developed. Nelson Serrano had failed to pay the $75, 000 to each of his partners. Further, there were disagreements about the distribution of assets and accusations that there were two sets of books. Then, in the summer of 1997, Phil Dosso and George Gonsalves fired Francisco Serrano. Also in the summer of 1997, Nelson Serrano opened a separate business checking account with a different bank and deposited two Erie checks totaling over $200, 000. And Serrano instituted a civil suit against his partners. Ultimately, Serrano was removed as president by a vote of the other two partners, and the locks were changed on the building.
Numerous Erie employees testified to the strained relations between Serrano and the other two partners, particularly Serrano's dislike of Gonsalves. Serrano made statements indicating that he wished Gonsalves were deceased. Additionally, Phil Dosso testified to hearing Serrano state that he felt like killing Gonsalves.
On the evening of the murders, most Erie employees left work at 5 p.m. or shortly thereafter. However, as was his usual practice, George Gonsalves worked late. David Catalan, an employee at Erie, testified that when he left with another employee shortly after 5 p.m. George Gonsalves' car was the only car in the parking lot. Although George Patisso and Frank Dosso remained at Erie with Gonsalves, they did not have a car parked in front because George Patisso's wife, Diane Patisso, had plans to pick them up and take them to Frank Dosso's home for a family birthday party.
When family members began calling Frank Dosso and could not get an answer, Phil Dosso and his wife decided to drive to Erie. As Phil and Nicoletta Dosso entered Erie's unlocked front door, they discovered the deceased body of their daughter, Diane Patisso. Phil Dosso called 911 and ran to Frank Dosso's office, where he discovered the bodies of George Gonsalves, George Patisso, and Frank Dosso.
When the first law enforcement officers arrived at the scene at 7:36 p.m., there were only three cars parked in front of the entrance: Phil Dosso's car, Diane Patisso's car, and George Gonsalves' car. Inside Erie, law enforcement discovered twelve shell casings, eleven from a .22 and one from a .32. All of the victims had been shot in the head with .22 bullets, and Diane Patisso was also shot once with a .32 bullet. The three men were shot execution-style. While neither murder weapon was ever located, the State introduced evidence that Serrano possessed and owned multiple .22 and .32 caliber firearms.
In the office containing the three male victims, officers discovered a blue vinyl chair with shoe impressions on the seat. Directly above the chair, a ceiling tile had been dislodged. Although this office was Frank Dosso's office at the time of the murders, it had been Nelson Serrano's office when he worked at Erie. David Catalan testified that on one occasion, he saw Serrano in his office with a gun. Serrano was standing on a chair, moving a ceiling tile, and taking papers out of the ceiling. Further, Erie employee Velma Ellis testified that the blue chair in Frank Dosso's office was never used and always remained under a desk in the office and that there were papers and a box piled on top of the chair's seat. Ellis testified that the chair was in its usual position under the desk when she left work on December 3, 1997, at 5 p.m. Crime analysts tested the shoe impressions on the dusty seat of the blue vinyl chair and found that the class characteristics and wear pattern were consistent with a pair of shoes Serrano owned and later loaned to a nephew.
The State's theory at trial was that Serrano kept a .32 caliber firearm hidden in the ceiling of his office. Once he was ousted from the company and the locks were changed he was unable to retrieve the gun until the night of the murders. After Serrano had shot the three male victims in his former office and was leaving the scene, Diane Patisso entered the building and was shot with both a .22 and the retrieved .32. An FDLE agent testified that Serrano told the agent that he would hide a gun in the ceiling of his office when he was out of town on business. However, Serrano's fingerprints and DNA were not discovered at the crime scene.
When officers first discovered the four victims at Erie, their investigation immediately focused on Serrano. As soon as Serrano returned to his home from a business trip to Atlanta on December 4, 1997, detectives requested that he come to the police station for an interview. At the police station, Serrano told law enforcement about his problems with his partners and explained to the detective that he had learned of the murders the previous evening when he had called his wife from his Atlanta hotel.
During his interview with law enforcement, Serrano detailed his business trip itinerary, which included leaving Lakeland early on the morning of December 2, flying from Orlando to Washington, D.C., and, on the evening of December 2, flying from Washington to Atlanta. Serrano indicated that he remained in Atlanta until December 4, 1997. When asked by the detective what he thought may have happened at Erie, Serrano replied that "somebody is getting even; somebody they cheated, and George is capable of that." Thereafter, the detective took Serrano's taped statement, which was played for the jury. During his taped statement, Serrano stated that maybe Diane Patisso "walked in the middle of something."
Officers traveled to Atlanta to investigate Serrano's alibi and met with Larry Heflin of Astechnologies regarding his business meeting with Serrano. Heflin testified that he met Serrano in Atlanta on December 3 at about 9:45 a.m., and the meeting lasted approximately one hour. Investigators also obtained the La Quinta Inn airport hotel's surveillance videotapes. The video showed Serrano in the Atlanta hotel lobby at 12:19 p.m. on December 3. Ten hours later, at 10:17 p.m., Serrano was again seen on the video, entering the hotel lobby from the outside, wearing the same sweater and jacket as earlier in the afternoon.
Alvaro Penaherrera, Serrano's nephew, testified that on two separate occasions Serrano asked Penaherrera to rent a car for him so that Serrano's wife would not find out about the rentals. On October 29, 1997, Serrano drove Penaherrera to the Orlando airport, where Penaherrera picked up a rental car. Penaherrera then drove the car and left it at a nearby valet lot. Thereafter, Serrano drove Penaherrera back to his apartment. Penaherrera had no further contact with the rental car and did not know who returned it on October 31, 1997, at 7:30 p.m.
Around Thanksgiving 1997, Serrano again asked Penaherrera to rent a car for him under Penaherrera's name because Serrano had a girlfriend from Brazil coming into town. On November 23, 1997, Penaherrera made a telephone reservation for a rental car for December 3, 1997. On December 3, 1997, at 7:53 a.m., Serrano called Penaherrera from Atlanta and asked him to call to confirm the rental car reservation. Serrano called Penaherrera back at 8:06 a.m. to verify that the rental car would be ready. Penaherrera then drove to Orlando's airport and parked his car in the parking garage, rented the car from the terminal dealership, and drove the rental car back to the Orlando airport parking garage, where he left it as his uncle requested. Later that day, Serrano called Penaherrera, and Penaherrera told Serrano where the car was located and where the keys were hidden.
As on the previous occasion in October, Penaherrera did not expect to have any further involvement with the rental car after he left it at the Orlando airport parking garage on December 3. However, Serrano called Penaherrera the next day, December 4, to tell Penaherrera that the rental car was in Tampa, not Orlando, and that Penaherrera needed to drive to Tampa and return the car there. Serrano told Penaherrera if he went to Tampa and returned the car, Serrano would pay off Penaherrera's credit card bill and Penaherrera could pay him back without interest. Penaherrera agreed to this arrangement and returned the rental car in Tampa at 2:10 p.m. on December 4, 1997. Gustavo Concha, Serrano's friend and Penaherrera's godfather, subsequently paid Penaherrera's Visa bill.
Penaherrera next saw Serrano when he was visiting relatives in Ecuador for Christmas of 1997. Serrano informed Penaherrera of the murders at Erie and told Penaherrera that he could not say anything about the rental cars because it would jeopardize his marriage and the police would frame him for the murders.
In June 2000, Penaherrera, his girlfriend, and his brother were subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury. The three spent the night at Serrano's house the night before their testimony. That night Serrano asked Penaherrera to tell the grand jury that he had rented the car for a friend with whom he had subsequently lost contact. Serrano also gave Penaherrera and his brother suits and dress shoes to wear to court. The pair of shoes that Serrano gave Penaherrera were seized by law enforcement, and subsequent testing indicated that the right shoe was consistent with the impression on the seat of the blue chair at the murder scene.
Also in June 2000, Penaherrera spoke for the first time with law enforcement regarding the December 1997 rental car transaction. And after his testimony and discussions with law enforcement, Penaherrera returned home to Orlando, where Serrano contacted him to find out what information he had given to the grand jury and law enforcement. After Penaherrera testified before the grand jury, Serrano sold his home, car, and other assets and moved to Ecuador.
The State introduced evidence regarding Serrano's air travel for his December 1997 business trip. As explained previously, Serrano flew from Orlando to Washington, D.C., and then to Atlanta, on December 2, 1997. However, contrary to his statements to law enforcement, the State also introduced evidence that Serrano traveled back to Florida on the day of the murders using two aliases. The State theorized that on the day of the murders Serrano flew from Atlanta to Orlando under the name Juan Agacio. Serrano then drove the car rented by Penaherrera on December 3 from the Orlando airport to Bartow, where he killed the four victims. Thereafter, he immediately drove the rental car to the Tampa airport, where he departed on a flight back to Atlanta using the alias John White.
To support its theory and timeline of Serrano's activities on the day of the murders, the State introduced the videotape evidence demonstrating that Serrano was in the La Quinta Inn's lobby in Atlanta shortly after noon on December 3, 1997. According to Serrano, he returned to his hotel room for the next ten hours because he was suffering from a migraine headache. However, the State introduced evidence that at 1:36 p.m. on December 3 a passenger calling himself Juan Agacio boarded Delta flight 1807 in Atlanta, scheduled to depart at 1:41 p.m. for Orlando. At 3:05 p.m., the passenger purporting to be Juan Agacio arrived in Orlando on flight 1807, and at 3:49 p.m., the rental car that Penaherrera had rented exited the Orlando parking garage.
Serrano's fingerprint was located on the parking garage ticket, indicating that Serrano departed from the Orlando airport garage at 3:49 p.m. on December 3, 1997. And Serrano has a son, who was named Juan Carlos Serrano at birth and whose mother's maiden name is Gladys Agacio. Additionally, the round-trip ticket for the Atlanta- to-Orlando flight of the passenger flying under the name Juan Agacio was purchased with cash at the Orlando airport on November 23, 1997, which is the same date that Penaherrera reserved the rental car for December 3, 1997. The State also introduced evidence that Serrano's vehicle left the Orlando airport's parking garage about twenty minutes after the passenger traveling under the name Juan Agacio purchased his ticket. The return portion of the flight was never used.
At approximately 5:30 p.m. on December 3, 1997, a person was seen standing off the side of the road near Erie's building. When John Purvis left work on December 3, 1997, he noticed the man wearing a suit standing in the grassy area with no car in the vicinity. The man was holding his coat and hands in front of his face as if he were lighting a cigarette. Both Alvaro Penaherrera and Maureen Serrano testified that Serrano smoked, but they did not testify that he specifically smoked cigarettes. Purvis described the man, and law enforcement made a composite sketch that was shown to the jury.
Approximately two hours after the murders, at 7:28 p.m., the passenger flying under the name John White arrived at Tampa International Airport and checked into Delta Airlines for flight 1272 to Atlanta. Similar to the purchasing process for the ticket in the name of Juan Agacio, the purchaser paid for a round-trip ticket at Tampa International Airport on November 23, 1997, and never used the return portion of the ticket. Flight 1272 was scheduled to arrive in Atlanta at 9:41 p.m.
At 10:17 p.m., Serrano was observed in Atlanta on videotape walking into the La Quinta Inn airport hotel lobby from the outside, wearing the same clothes he had been wearing ten hours earlier. After being observed in the hotel lobby, Serrano used his cell phone to call various individuals, including his wife. The next morning he made multiple calls to Alvaro Penaherrera telling him he had to return the rental car that was now located at Tampa airport.
Furthermore, the State presented evidence that the car rented by Penaherrera on December 3 had been driven 139 miles. The distance from the Orlando airport to Erie is eighty miles, and the distance from Erie to the Tampa airport is fifty miles, totaling 130 miles.
While incarcerated awaiting trial, Serrano spoke to fellow inmate and "jailhouse lawyer, " Leslie Todd Jones, about his case. Serrano denied any involvement in the murders, telling Jones that he believed a mafia hitman may have committed the murders, or alternatively, that Frank Dosso wanted to take over the business from George Gonsalves. The main theory Serrano described involved a hitman Serrano knew only as John, who was owed a substantial amount of money by the Dosso and Gonsalves families. Serrano explained to Jones that he and the hitman drove to the airports in Tampa and Orlando and that John purchased tickets under the names of Todd White and Juan Agacio. Serrano told Jones that the hitman had planned to approach the business partners on Halloween night, but it was raining and the business was closed. Serrano also told Jones about his fingerprint being found on a parking ticket in Orlando, but Serrano claimed that an FDLE agent had planted his fingerprint.
After law enforcement learned about the Halloween incident from inmate Jones, they began investigating and discovered almost an identical pattern of travel as the travel surrounding the December 3, 1997, murders. Serrano once again was traveling on a business trip from Orlando to Charlotte from October 30 to November 2, 1997. And as previously discussed, on October 29, Serrano took Alvaro Penaherrera to the Orlando airport, where Penaherrera rented a car for Serrano and left it at a nearby valet lot. The next morning, October 30, 1997, Serrano flew from Orlando to Charlotte with his flight arriving in Charlotte at 8:34 a.m. The following day, Halloween, someone traveling under the name Juan Agacio took a flight departing from Charlotte at 1:40 p.m. and arriving in Orlando at 3:07 p.m. At 7:30 p.m., a passenger identified as John White was scheduled to depart on a flight from Tampa to Charlotte.
During the guilt phase, the defense maintained that Serrano had been in an Atlanta hotel room with a migraine at the time of the murders. The defense emphasized that no forensic evidence linked Serrano to the scene of the crimes. The defense also pointed out that there was evidence of robbery at the scene as several offices were in disarray, Frank Dosso's Rolex watch was missing, and George Patisso's gold chain was missing. However, the jury returned a verdict finding Serrano guilty on four counts of first-degree murder.
At the penalty phase, the State presented victim impact statements, and the parties stipulated that Serrano was fifty-nine years of age at the time of the murders and that Serrano had no prior criminal history. The defense presented evidence that Serrano never received any disciplinary reports while incarcerated awaiting trial. The jury recommended a sentence of death by a vote of nine to three for each of the four murder counts.
At the Spencer hearing, Serrano presented numerous witnesses, some of whom testified by videotape from Ecuador. Then, on June 26, 2007, the trial court sentenced Serrano ...

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