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Stevens v. State

Supreme Court of Florida

September 14, 2017

VERNON STEVENS, Petitioner,
v.
STATE OF FLORIDA, Respondent.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION, AND IF FILED, DETERMINED.

         Application for Review of the Decision of the District Court of Appeal - Certified Direct Conflict of Decisions Second District - Case No. 2D13-2148 (Hendry County)

          Stephen M. Grogoza, Special Assistant Public Defender, Bartow, Florida, for Petitioner.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida; and John Klawikofsky, Chief Assistant Attorney General, and Donna S. Koch, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, Florida, for Respondent.

          LEWIS, J.

         This case is before the Court for review of the decision of the Second District Court of Appeal in Stevens v. State, 195 So.3d 403 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016). The district court certified that its decision is in direct conflict with the decision of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Moore v. State, 932 So.2d 524 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006). We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const. For the following reasons, we hold that the trial court properly denied Stevens' request for a second-degree arson instruction because there was no evidence adduced at trial that entitled him to such an instruction.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Petitioner, Vernon Stevens, was charged by indictment with the first-degree murder of Epitacio Antonio Hernandez-Beltran (Beltran), first-degree arson of a dwelling, and robbery with a deadly weapon. The State sought the death penalty. Where relevant, the indictment alleged that Stevens "did unlawfully and willfully, or while in the commission of a felony, to-wit: robbery, by fire or explosion, damage or cause to be damaged, a structure, to-wit: a dwelling, . . . or its contents, contrary to Florida Statute 806.01(1)(a)."

         These charges arose from a savage murder in October 2007. Stevens and his codefendant, Raymond Diaz, viciously beat and repeatedly strangled Beltran inside his trailer home. They robbed Beltran and left him bound, lying on the floor. Later, Stevens and Diaz returned and set fire to the trailer with Beltran still inside in an attempt to conceal their actions.[1]

         As the Second District noted below, the "graphic details of the offense are not important to the legal issue we address." Stevens, 195 So.3d at 405. Rather, the operative fact is that the events took place inside Beltran's trailer home, which Beltran used exclusively as a dwelling with his wife. This fact was undisputed at trial and on appeal.

         At the preliminary charge conference, Stevens requested an instruction for second-degree arson as a lesser included offense of first-degree arson. Then, the following exchange occurred:

[The Court]: I guess my question is specific to the Category I request, [defense counsel], the request for arson in the second degree. And if you can tell me the distinction between the first and second and why the second would apply in this case.
[Defense Counsel]: Well, in all candor, Judge, the distinction is, one's a structure and one's a dwelling. I'll just stand on that.

         At the final charge conference, the trial court denied Stevens' request for an instruction on second-degree arson. The court explained its ruling:

[The Court]: The Court, after reviewing the indictment, consideration of the Category I versus Category II lesser included offense and the evidence adduced at trial, finds that the defense request for 12.2 shall not ...

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