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Beckman v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Third District

September 6, 2017

Jason Beckman, Appellant,
v.
The State of Florida, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

         An Appeal from the Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County No. 09-14217, Rodney Smith, Judge.

          Carlos J. Martinez, Public Defender, and Jonathan Greenberg, Assistant Public Defender, for appellant.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, and Jonathan Tanoos, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Before SUAREZ, LAGOA and SCALES, JJ.

          SCALES, J.

         Jason Beckman, the defendant below, appeals his conviction and sentence for first degree premeditated murder, claiming that he is entitled to a new trial based on erroneous evidentiary rulings by the lower court and improper closing argument by the prosecutor. The defendant also argues that Florida's sentencing scheme for juveniles convicted of capital crimes, which comports with Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), violates Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000). See § 921.1401, Fla. Stat. (2015). Finding no abuse of discretion as to any of the alleged trial errors and concluding that the defendant's sentence was constitutional, we affirm for the following reasons.

         The underlying facts

         On April 12, 2009, the then seventeen-year-old defendant shot and killed his father with a shotgun in the bathroom of their home, while his father was taking a shower. The shotgun had two barrels, each with a safety. At the time of the shooting, one safety was on and one was off. Each chamber was loaded with live ammunition. The shotgun trigger required two to four pounds of pressure to fire. The defendant fired the shotgun once, while standing just four and half to six feet from his father, who was standing in the shower tub taking a shower.

         The shotgun pellets went through the shower curtain, hitting the father in the neck and face. The pellets lacerated his tongue, fractured his jaw, broke or displaced his teeth and lodged inside his head, causing hemorrhaging in the brain. He bled to death after several minutes.

         Within a minute of the shooting, the defendant called out, "Oh my God, call 911" loud enough for a neighbor, Frank Alfonso, to hear. During the 911 call, the defendant told the police dispatch, "Please, come quickly, I accidentally shot my father." He then stated that he was going hunting with his father and that he had gone into the bathroom to show his father a shotgun, which accidentally went off even though the safety was on.

         Upon arriving at the scene, the police searched the home and found the defendant's book bag in a bedroom. In the book bag was a spiral notebook, the first page of which was labeled "The List" at the top. Underneath the title were ten names that were each preceded by a Roman numeral III, IV or V. The father's name was at the top of the page and was the only name with a roman numeral V next to it. Other names on the list included those of the defendant's teachers and classmates.

         The defendant was arrested and charged by indictment with first-degree premeditated murder with a firearm that discharged and caused death, and unlawful possession of a firearm while engaged in a criminal offense.[1] The State's theory was that the defendant had a longstanding hatred for his father and that he had intentionally shot and killed him. The defendant admitted to shooting his father, but claimed it was an accident.

         While in jail awaiting trial, the defendant shared a cell with Michael Nistal, who claimed the defendant had told Mr. Nistal about the shooting. According to Mr. Nistal, who gave a statement to the police about his jailhouse conversations, the defendant stated that he shot his father in the face with the shotgun because he hated him and that he would have used a knife had he not underestimated the circumstantial evidence in the case. Mr. Nistal also claimed that the defendant kept another list of names while he was in jail, which included the names of fellow inmates and the defendant's neighbors. Mr. Nistal claimed that the defendant told him that he wanted to kill the neighbors because they were potential trial witnesses.

         At trial, the court permitted the State to introduce The List found in the defendant's book bag. The court also allowed the State to present several of the defendant's classmates and teachers, who testified that the defendant told them why he had created The List, and as to how certain people ended up being placed on The List. Several of these witnesses testified that the defendant told them that he hated his father and wanted him to die, even offering one witness money if he would kill the defendant's father. The court also permitted the State to elicit testimony, through Mr. Nistal, about the second list the defendant maintained while awaiting trial.

         The court excluded any evidence that the defendant suffers from Asperger's syndrome, finding that his condition only goes to diminished capacity, which is an impermissible defense in Florida. Nevertheless, the court did permit the defense to introduce testimony that the defendant is "weird, " and speaks "oddly, " "out of turn" and in a "monotone" voice as a means of explaining his mannerisms and demeanor.

         The court excluded the content of the defendant's 911 call to police dispatch, finding it did not satisfy the excited utterance exception to the hearsay rule. The court did so upon determining that the defendant had an opportunity to reflect prior to making the call. In so holding, the court relied upon the testimony of the defendant's neighborhood friend, Lisa Syren. She testified that, just two weeks prior to the shooting, the defendant had both shown her the shotgun and said that he wanted to shoot his father with it and make it look like self-defense.

         During closing argument, the prosecutor made a number of comments- some objected to, some not-which the defendant claims amounted to misconduct and which entitle him to a new trial. The court denied his motion for a new trial.

         The jury convicted the defendant as charged of first degree premeditated murder. Because he was seventeen years and twenty-nine days old at the time of the offense, the trial court conducted an individualized sentencing hearing under section 921.1401 of the Florida Statutes. The trial court imposed a sentence of life in prison, later amended to life with judicial review after twenty five years. This appeal ensued.

         On this appeal, the defendant claims the trial court abused its discretion by: permitting the prosecutor to introduce bad character evidence with respect to The List and the second list he kept in jail awaiting trial; precluding the defense from introducing testimony that the defendant had Asperger's syndrome; excluding the defendant's 911 call to the police as hearsay; and denying the defense motion for mistrial based on improper closing argument. The defendant also argues that the individualized hearing for juveniles set forth in section 921.1401 of the Florida Statutes violates Apprendi because the trial court, not the jury, conducts the individualized hearing and determines whether a life sentence is appropriate. We address each claim separately.

         Evidence of The List

         Background facts

         The List contained ten names with a Roman numeral preceding each name. The father's name was at the top of The List and was the only name with a Roman numeral V next to it. Of the remaining nine names on The List, there were seven names with a Roman numeral IV and two with a Roman numeral III. There were no Roman numerals I or II.

         At a motion in limine hearing, the State argued that an un-redacted copy of The List should be presented to the jury because it was "inextricably intertwined" evidence. See § 90.402, Fla. Stat. (2013) ("All relevant evidence is admissible, except as provided by law."). To this end, the State commented that "witnesses will come in and testify that they knew the Defendant had a list . . . and he described to them what the list was for." The State proffered that the witnesses would "discuss the levels of the list" and that the defendant regularly stated that he hated his father and wanted to kill him. The State also noted that "everyone on this list had an incident with this Defendant that they can recall." The trial court ruled that The List would be admitted at trial.

         At trial, the court was asked to clarify its earlier ruling with respect to the witnesses who would be testifying about The List. The defense objected to any witnesses testifying as to any personal incident they had with defendant that resulted with either their name being placed on The List, or the defendant telling them their name had been placed on The List. Defense counsel argued that none of the unrelated incidents were relevant as to whether the defendant intentionally killed his father. In response, the State argued that the witnesses' testimony as to the unrelated incidents would provide an "understanding of this list" insofar as it was evidence of "the way that the Defendant keeps track of people whom he does not like and that he intends to punish." The trial court agreed with the State and ruled their testimony was admissible.

         Consistent with the court's rulings, the State introduced the testimony of several of the defendant's former classmates and teachers at trial with respect to The List.

         Analysis

         The defendant argues that, by allowing witnesses to testify as to why people were on The List, the trial court erroneously admitted Williams[2] rule evidence, i.e., collateral evidence of uncharged bad acts introduced solely to prove the defendant's bad character or propensity to commit crime, in violation of section 90.404(2)(a) of the Florida Statutes. The State counters that though it did provide a Williams Rule notice at trial, it ultimately sought to introduce the witnesses' testimony only under section 90.402 of the Florida Statutes, which provides that "[a]ll relevant evidence is admissible, except as provided by law." Because the State's argument is well taken, we address only the section 90.402 argument. See Griffin v. State, 639 So.2d 966, 968 (Fla. 1994) ("[E]vidence of uncharged crimes which . . . is inextricably intertwined with the crime charged, is not Williams rule evidence.").

         In Dorsett v. State, 944 So.2d 1207, 1213 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006) (citations omitted), this court sitting en banc stated the standard under section 90.402 for admitting relevant evidence of uncharged collateral acts that is considered to be "inextricably intertwined" with the charged crime(s):

Evidence is inextricably intertwined if the evidence is necessary to (1) "adequately describe the deed, "; (2) provide an intelligent account of the crime(s) charged; (3) establish the entire context out of which the charged crime(s) arose; or (4) adequately describe the events leading up to the charged crime(s).

         Collateral evidence is admissible under section 90.402 if it is a "relevant and inseparable part of the act which is in issue." Id. at 1214-15 (quoting Charles W. Ehrhardt, Florida Evidence § 404.17 (1993 ed.)). If this standard is met, the court must then decide if the probative value of introducing such evidence is "substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of issues, misleading the jury, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence." Id. at 1212 (quoting § 90.403, Fla. Stat.). This court reviews the trial court's ruling on admissibility of such evidence for an abuse of discretion. See Knight v. State, 15 So.3d 936, 938 (Fla. 3d DCA 2009). "In the context of the trial proceedings to that point, [where] reasonable trial judges might well disagree on whether the defense objection should have been overruled or sustained, . . . no abuse of discretion [will be] shown." Id.

         Here, the defendant concedes that the un-redacted list was admissible at trial, as well as witness testimony as to the meaning of the Roman numerals next to the names on the list and the differing levels of deserved punishment the defendant assigned to them. The defendant argues, however, that the testimony should have stopped there, claiming that whether the defendant had threatened and/or intended to hurt teachers, classmates and neighbors, was in no way relevant to prove that he intentionally killed his father. In contrast, as it argued below, the State claims that the witnesses' testimony about circumstances surrounding the defendant's placement of their names on the list was necessary to establish the entire context out of which the charged crimes arose and to adequately describe the events leading up to the shooting. These are the third and fourth justifications stated in Dorsett.

         Having reviewed the trial transcripts, we find that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the testimony of the defendant's former teachers and classmates was inextricably intertwined with the charged crime and that the probative value of such evidence was not outweighed by its prejudicial effect. See Dorsett, 944 So.2d at 1215 ("Given these facts, without being able to explain the entire context and circumstances leading to the charged transaction, the jury would not have been presented with a true understanding regarding the officer's focus and attention on the defendant."); State v. Rambaran, 975 So.2d 519, 525 (Fla. 3d DCA 2008) (permitting the State to introduce evidence of collateral crimes by the defendant against the two victims on two prior occasions because the prior events "provide an intelligent account of the events that led to the crimes being tried, " where the defendant was charged with two counts of attempted murder).

         The State is correct that providing testimony only as to the father's name appearing on The List and the meaning of the Roman numeral designation next to his name would not have provided the full context of when and how the defendant developed his hatred and premeditated intent to kill his father. Without more, the jury would have had little insight into the defendant's thought process or intent when creating The List-such as, what types of acts merited a person being designated a category I or II (just mad at person), and categories III (deserved punishment), IV (deserved severe, permanent punishment) and V (deserved death), and what moved a person up and/or down The List, as well as why only the father merited a category V.[3]

         Evidence ...


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