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Wall v. State

Supreme Court of Florida

February 22, 2018

CRAIG ALAN WALL, SR., Appellant,


         An Appeal from the Circuit Court in and for Pinellas County, Philip J. Federico, Judge - Case No. 522010CF003759XXXXNO

          Howard L. "Rex" Dimmig, II, Public Defender, and Julius J. Ausilio, Assistant Public Defender, Tenth Judicial Circuit, Bartow, Florida; and Craig Alan Wall, Sr., Pro Se, Raiford, Florida, for Appellant

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, Marilyn M. Beccue and C. Suzanne Bechard, Assistant Attorneys General, Tampa, Florida, for Appellee

          PER CURIAM.

         This case is before the Court on appeal from convictions of first-degree murder and sentences of death. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const. Based on the following, we affirm the convictions and sentences of death.


         Craig Wall, Sr., Appellant, was charged by indictment with two counts of first-degree murder for killing his fiancée, Laura Taft, on February 17, 2010, and their five-week old son, Craig Wall, Jr. (C.J.), on or between February 5 and 6, 2010. During six years of various court proceedings, Wall switched between pro se and attorney representation. Eventually, on February 13, 2015, Wall pleaded guilty to Count One-the murder of Taft-and no contest to Count Two-the murder of C.J.

         In his plea agreement, Wall agreed with the State that the death penalty was the appropriate sentence. Thereafter, Wall waived a penalty phase jury and proceeded pro se during the penalty phase, offering little mitigation. The trial court appointed independent special counsel for the purpose of presenting additional mitigation that may exist. On June 3, 2016, Wall was sentenced to death on both counts of first-degree murder.

         C.J.'s Death

         Taft gave birth to C.J. on December 30, 2009. Wall, Taft, and C.J. all lived together, along with Taft's six-year-old son from a prior relationship, Connor, who lived with them part time. At around 7:30 a.m. on February 5, 2010, Taft left for work. About three hours later, Wall called 911 and reported that C.J. was not breathing. Paramedics arrived at around 10:45 a.m., and found that C.J. was not breathing, he was unresponsive, and cyanotic. C.J. was taken to the hospital, where doctors found bleeding in his eyes and brain, and also rib fractures. Doctors suspected that the injuries were caused by child abuse, so they reported the case to law enforcement who interviewed Wall. Detectives with the Clearwater Police Department questioned Wall about the events preceding C.J.'s death.

         He indicated that Taft left their home around 7:30 a.m., and he was alone with C.J. between her departure and the paramedics' arrival. Wall claimed that when he awoke at about 10 a.m., C.J. was propped up on a pillow beside him in bed. He said that C.J. was wet and making noise like he was hungry. Then, Wall contended that he gave C.J. a bottle and left him on the couch in the living room, while he made himself breakfast. At that point, C.J. did not appear to be in crisis.

         Wall told investigators that he heard C.J. cough and went back into the living room to find C.J. limp with his eyes "slitted like he was sleeping, but he wasn't." Wall started to change C.J.'s diaper and took him to the bathtub. According to Wall, C.J. was limp that entire time. Then, Wall ran cold water over C.J. to get him to respond. At one point, Wall blew into C.J.'s mouth and mucus came out of his nose. When Wall removed C.J. from the bathtub, he could hear his heart beating, but he did not detect breathing. Wall then placed C.J. on a bed and dried him off with a towel and a hair dryer set to low. Next, Wall brought C.J. back into the living room and attempted to squeeze his ribs because he did not know how to do CPR. Eventually, Wall placed C.J. on the floor and called 911.

         During the interview, Wall was confronted with the fact that C.J. suffered a brain injury. Upon further questioning, Wall brought up the term "shaken baby syndrome." At various points, Wall vacillated between accepting blame for C.J.'s injuries and claiming not to know how they occurred. In fact, Wall stated, "I fu---- killed my son."[1] Wall repeatedly stated that Taft was a good mother who had not harmed C.J.

         After being confronted with C.J.'s brain injury, Wall discussed a near car accident. On February 3, 2010, two days before C.J. became unresponsive, Taft was nearly involved in a car accident with C.J. in the backseat, but she was able to stop her vehicle in time. Following that incident, Taft stopped the vehicle and checked on C.J., who appeared fine. Initially, Wall acknowledged that he did not think that the near accident could have caused C.J.'s injuries, but later in the interview he began suggesting that such event was the cause. The same day as the near accident, C.J. was circumcised. Doctors told Wall not to feed C.J. for fifteen minutes after the procedure, but Wall fed him a bottle in his truck anyway. Following that, C.J. "threw up massively" in the truck. The next day, February 4-one day prior to C.J. becoming unresponsive-Wall noted that C.J. had a temperature of ninety-three degrees and that he regurgitated in his bouncy chair.

         On February 5, after C.J. was taken to the hospital, Dr. Sally Smith examined him. C.J. had a hemorrhage on his brain, his pupils were dilated and unreactive, and he had retinal hemorrhages. This combination of injuries led Dr. Smith to suspect that someone physically abused C.J. Specifically, the injuries suggested "abusive head trauma, " which is the result of "high-force acceleration/deceleration rotational trauma to the brain, often . . . by violent shaking, but [it] can be also caused in the course of the child being swung around." C.J.'s brain was so swollen that it protruded through an opening in the dura matter, which is a thick membrane covering the surface of the brain. An autopsy later determined that the cause of death was blunt-force trauma.

         According to Dr. Smith, this type of brain injury would not be caused by a vehicle stopping when it never impacted another object. She continued, "Even with an impact, extensive bilateral retinal hemorrhages are exceedingly rare in any kind of car crash, let alone one that doesn't involve an impact." Dr. Smith concluded that an infant with C.J.'s injuries would not have been able to survive for twenty-four hours without medical attention if those injuries were caused by a car accident. In fact, Dr. Smith testified to a time frame for these injuries:

In cases like this where the baby died of these injuries, the progression to that sort of critically ill condition and impending death would occur probably within minutes of the original trauma. It might be an hour or two, but it would be quickly following injury to the brain.

         An infant with C.J.'s injuries would not have been able to drink a bottle, and would only be able to make certain noises such as grunting or gasping for air. Thus Dr. Smith testified that it would be "highly unlikely" for a child to still be alive at 10:45 a.m. having received C.J.'s injuries prior to 7:30 a.m.

         Dr. Thogmartin, Wall's witness, opined that any brain injury from the birthing process could be completely ruled out as the cause of death. Further, Dr. Thogmartin testified that while rebleeding may occur in old brain injuries, an injury would not rebleed to the extent of a chronic subdural hematoma. In Dr. Thogmartin's opinion, C.J. suffered a brain injury about one week prior to his death, but was reinjured "right around the time of death." Also, Dr. Smith noted C.J.'s rib fractures. These fractures were posterior fractures, adjacent to the spinal column, which "are highly specific for child abuse as the cause." Because infant ribs are somewhat flexible, posterior rib fractures are not caused by CPR. Instead, posterior rib fractures in infants are caused by "high force compression or distortion-type forces applied to the ribs where they end up breaking across the adjacent spinal." Dr. Thogmartin testified that these fractures were not from CPR; rather, this was a "squeeze the life out of the rabbit squeeze" most likely from an "extreme inflicted injury."

         On February 6, 2010, C.J. died.

         Interim Time Between C.J.'s and Taft's Deaths

         Later in the day on February 6, Wall ingested sleeping pills to attempt suicide. He made an emotional suicide video where he denied harming C.J. Taft called law enforcement, after which Wall was involuntarily committed to state custody on mental health grounds and taken to Morton Plant Hospital.

         On February 8, 2010, Taft filed a petition for temporary injunction against Wall, citing domestic violence as the basis for the injunction. The injunction was granted, and it was served on Wall on February 9, 2010, while he was still in the hospital. The next day, Wall was released. He sought emergency hearings on the injunction to allow him to attend C.J.'s funeral; however, the court was unable to schedule a hearing on such short notice. So, on February 14, 2010, Wall violated the injunction and attended C.J.'s funeral, where he was arrested for the violation.

         While being transported to jail, Wall spoke with a fellow arrestee, Danny Welker. According to Welker, Wall told him that Taft "was lying, lying about him and that he was going to choke the life out of her when he got out of jail." When Welker suggested that Wall was exaggerating, Wall informed him that he was not. Wall was released from custody on February 15, 2010. By then, Taft had already moved out of their shared apartment to a different residence.

         Taft's Death

         At about 3 a.m. on February 17, 2010, Taft's upstairs neighbor, Christopher Thompson, returned home from working the late shift. Thompson noticed a person sitting in a red vehicle. That person, a male, exited his vehicle, walked away, and then returned. Thompson continued into his apartment, and, upon lying down for bed, he heard glass shatter directly below his residence. "Within less than 10 or 15 seconds" of the glass breaking, Thompson heard the "fearful" and "distressed yelling" of a female. According to Thompson, the yelling continued for thirty to forty-five seconds. Thompson attempted to call 911 and knocked on his roommates' door to wake them up. Then he exited his front door and saw the same male he had seen earlier walking toward the same red vehicle from the apartment below. The man looked back over his shoulder and Thompson saw him face-to-face. However, the man did not stop; instead, he got into his vehicle and drove off.

         Downstairs, Thompson found Taft in a seated position leaning against a wall beside the doorway. Thompson tried to speak to Taft, but he could only hear "gurgling noises from her throat." Despite his efforts, Thompson could not tell if Taft had a pulse. By that point, Thompson's roommate was already on the phone with 911. The police arrived and took Thompson to the police station to identify the man that he saw leaving the scene. There Thompson identified Wall.

         The trial court found that Wall, armed with an "assault style" knife, broke Taft's rear sliding glass door. Then, Wall confronted Taft, and he violently attacked her. The final blow, which was delivered to her left shoulder, was delivered with enough force that the knife blade separated from the handle and remained lodged inside her. The fatal wound was a stab to her torso that entered her heart. Moreover, Taft evidenced multiple defensive wounds.

         Procedural History

         This case has a long, convoluted procedural history, most of which is irrelevant to our decision today. Thus we only include the portions relevant for these proceedings.

         Wall initially sought hybrid representation, with trial counsel representing him as to C.J.'s death and Wall representing himself as to Taft's death. At a hearing on February 27, 2013, the trial court denied Wall's request for self-representation.

         A defense motion on April 12, 2013, to have Wall transported for a psychological examination was denied. Wall took exception to the State's comment that he might attempt to escape during transport. In response, Wall said, "You people are really idiots." The trial court warned Wall about his behavior and, after a back-and-forth exchange, Wall asked the trial court, "Are you done?" The trial court again warned Wall that he would be removed from the courtroom if he disregarded the rules. The hearing continued and Wall later said, "[Y]our Honor was being, for lack of a more legal term, a dick." As the hearing was ending, the trial court thanked Wall, to which Wall responded, "I tried to spare you." At that point, the trial court stated:

Hopefully, the Supreme Court appreciates the patience that I'm attempting to show in this situation because that's what I'm trying to do every time we're on the record as far as that's concerned. All right. You guys have a good weekend.

(Emphasis added.)

         On May 1, 2013, Wall again moved for a Faretta[2] hearing due to a disagreement with counsel, which the trial court refused to hear. The trial court then removed Wall from the courtroom due to his behavior. Trial counsel noted that the defense had not requested the appointment of a psychologist because Wall had refused to participate. The trial court stated that Wall should be evaluated, or at least an attempt should be made at an evaluation. Thus the trial court appointed Dr. Poorman, the jail psychologist, to evaluate Wall to determine if he was competent for self-representation. On May 29, 2013, Dr. Poorman's report indicated that Wall was not competent to represent himself, and Wall requested to be transferred to Florida State Hospital for treatment and potential reevaluation. Wall filed a motion to remove counsel, and on July 18, 2013, that motion was denied along with Wall's request to proceed pro se. By a pretrial hearing on August 29, 2013, Wall's security status changed because he threatened to kill his attorneys, so he remained cuffed and shackled in court. Wall claimed it would be easier for him to proceed pro se because counsel was not communicating with him, but the motion was denied.

         Again, at a pretrial hearing to remove counsel on December 13, 2013, Wall complained of a disagreement with trial counsel. Specifically, Wall disagreed with counsel's desire to pursue a psychiatric defense and would not cooperate with the psychologist: "[F]irst of all, you know, supposedly I'm this evil white supremacist.

         I ain't talking to no fu ----- Jew. So you stop sending Eisenstein at me." The trial court explained to Wall that his goal of receiving the death penalty was inconsistent with trial counsel's responsibility to mount a defense and the concept of pleading no contest to C.J.'s death was discussed. Then Wall raised case law from Indiana where a court had allowed a defendant to plead guilty in exchange for the death penalty. That offer was presented by Wall to the State but was rejected.

         Trial counsel explained that the psychologist's religion would not make a difference as Wall was determined not to cooperate or speak to any psychologist, which Wall confirmed. Wall then suggested that Dr. Poorman evaluate him again, which he would comply with as long as it was an evaluation before a Faretta hearing. During the course of the hearing, the trial court said to Wall, explaining a previous in camera hearing: "You can second-guess me. The Supreme Court will have every chance to second-guess me. I don't have any issue with that."

         At the following hearing, on December 20, 2013, Dr. Poorman testified that Wall was competent to represent himself. Her earlier determination in May 2013, that he was not competent to self-represent, was based on his behavioral issues, hunger strikes, and unwillingness to cooperate with the evaluation. However, on December 20, 2013, Dr. Poorman testified that Wall had the ability to represent himself with the caveat that he would need to control his vulgar language. Wall indicated that he wanted to dismiss counsel and get new attorneys. When the trial court asked if he wanted a Faretta hearing, he responded that he had no choice. The trial court noted that there was no sufficient basis to remove counsel, so Wall chose to proceed pro se. The trial court then conducted a Faretta hearing. However, Wall's attorneys were ordered to remain on the case as standby counsel over Wall's objection. Wall saw no difference in that structure, so he decided to keep representation by counsel and did not proceed pro se.

         When Wall disagreed with the trial court appointing a mitigation specialist, he became irate:

I can't verify that she'll live. Straight up. That bitch is-no. I can't even verify that she'll breathe another day, including [trial counsel]. Establish that. I might as well just go ahead and go all in.

         When the trial court ordered Wall removed from the courtroom, Wall screamed back into the courtroom. After that comment, the trial court remarked that hopefully this Court will review that outburst if the case came here. On February 7, 2014, at a Faretta/Nelson[3] hearing, Wall indicated his displeasure with trial counsel and noted that he was in the psychiatric unit under suicide watch. Later, Wall decided to proceed pro se again.

         On March 6, 2014, the trial court reaffirmed that Wall wished to proceed pro se. Then the trial court denied Wall's motion for continuance. The trial court reminded Wall that he had been warned a continuance would not be granted due to lack of preparation. At that point, the trial was scheduled for about one month later and the parties had been previously discussing pro se representation for six to eight months. The trial court explained that Wall repeatedly admitted to murdering Taft and stated multiple times that he wanted to receive the death penalty. Wall responded, "Let's make a deal." To which the trial court responded:

No, your dispute has been with the death of the child and whether you're legally responsible for that, and my understanding is that all of those experts that have been listed are going to be called. The State does not need to take their depositions.
So your defense, as far as the death of the minor child, is going to be based on the testimony ...

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