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Klaus v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Fifth District

January 12, 2018



         3.850 Appeal from the Circuit Court for Osceola County, Jon B. Morgan, Judge.

          Rachael E. Bushey, of O'Brien Hatfield P.A., Tampa, for Appellant.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Pamela J. Koller, Assistant Attorney General, Daytona Beach, for Appellee.

          EDWARDS, J.

         Vincent Klaus appeals the postconviction court's denial of his rule 3.850 motion for postconviction relief. Appellant argues that the court erred in denying seven claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel.[1] We affirm in part and reverse and remand in part for attachment of records or an evidentiary hearing.

         Following a jury trial, Appellant was convicted of murdering Brian Jarrett. The facts adduced at trial showed that Appellant, John Mitchell, and Jarrett were doing drugs together at a party. When Jarrett repeatedly asked Mitchell for more drugs, Mitchell hit him in the face, knocking him out. Appellant and Mitchell then put Jarrett into the trunk of Appellant's car to scare him. After they had driven some distance, they pulled the car over, opened the trunk, and both Appellant and Mitchell struck Jarrett. According to Mitchell, Appellant kicked Jarrett in the chest and stabbed him several times with a knife. Prior to leaving him there, they removed some of Jarrett's clothing so that he would be humiliated if he tried walking along the road.

         Mitchell testified that he and Appellant later purchased gasoline at a specific gas station and returned to the crime scene to burn the body. Mitchell said they then decided to simply hide the body by covering it with vegetation. Mitchell told the jury that at the time of the killing, Appellant's car had a back seat in place and a trunk liner installed. According to Mitchell, Appellant told him Jarrett had scratched his initials on the inside of the trunk, but Appellant had rubbed them out.

         Mitchell's girlfriend, Lindsey Liebl, testified that she found Mitchell on the bed crying and he told her that he "thought we killed Jarrett." Liebl testified that she overheard Appellant and Mitchell discussing the idea of moving the body and heard Appellant talking about Jarrett's initials being scratched into the trunk lid. Liebl threw away the clothes Mitchell wore on the night of the murder.

         According to the evidence, Jarrett's remains were located ten days after he was reported missing. His body had been concealed by vegetation and some of his clothes were missing. The medical examiner labeled Jarrett's death a homicide and confirmed that the victim had fractured ribs, but he was unable to determine what the cause of death was because the body was in an advanced stage of decomposition. When the police inspected Appellant's car, the back seat had been removed and there was no trunk liner. Appellant told police he had removed the seat in order to install a stereo. He admitted to police that he had been with Mitchell and Jarrett on the night in question but denied involvement in beating or killing Jarrett.

         Mitchell pleaded guilty to manslaughter in return for testifying at Appellant's trial, and his sentence was to serve the time previously ordered for a prior drug conviction. Liebl pleaded guilty to charges of being an accessory after the fact and served forty-one months of incarceration in exchange for her testimony at trial. No other fact witnesses connected Appellant to the beating or murder.

         As part of his second claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, Appellant asserts that trial counsel failed to conduct a proper factual investigation. Mitchell testified that he and Appellant went to a gas station where they bought gasoline with the intent to burn the victim's body. Appellant claims that if his lawyer had done a proper investigation, it would have been obvious that they did not purchase any gasoline, and in fact never even went to that particular gas station. Appellant argues that trial counsel could have used that information to effectively impeach Mitchell on an issue that certainly pointed to Appellant's guilt. The postconviction court denied relief as to this second claim, finding whether they had purchased gasoline to be inadmissible, collateral impeachment evidence because Jarrett's body had not been burned.

         Section 90.608(5), Florida Statutes (2010), states that any party "may attack the credibility of a witness by . . . [p]roof by other witnesses that material facts are not as testified to by the witness being impeached." Here, if Appellant's trial counsel had investigated Mitchell's claim that he and Appellant bought gasoline to burn Jarrett's body and found evidence to refute Mitchell's claim, counsel could have impeached Mitchell because whether he and Appellant bought gasoline with the intent to burn the body is a material fact. Cf. Parker v. State, 20 So.3d 966, 969-70 (Fla. 3d DCA 2009). This could have made a difference at trial because Mitchell was a key witness for the State, and thus, his "trustworthiness was critical to the State's case." Smith v. State, 185 So.3d 585, 585 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016); see also Gamble v. State, 685 So.2d 1310, 1311 (Fla. 2d DCA 1996).

         The portions of the trial transcript the postconviction court attached to its order summarily denying this ground do not conclusively refute this part of Appellant's second claim. Therefore, we reverse and remand for the postconviction court to either attach portions of the ...

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