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Adams v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

July 24, 2019


         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, Broward County; Martin J. Bidwill, Judge; L.T. Case No. 13-014515 CF10A.

          Samuel R. Halpern, Fort Lauderdale, and Arthur E. Marchetta, Jr., Fort Lauderdale, for appellant.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Mark J. Hamel, Assistant Attorney General, West Palm Beach, for appellee.

          May, J.

         The defendant appeals his conviction and sentence for first degree murder. He argues the trial court erred in admitting: (1) a co-defendant's statements because they lacked indicia of trustworthiness and violated the Confrontation Clause; (2) letters written by the defendant in jail and parts of a book authored by the defendant; and (3) a recorded phone call between the victim's father and the defendant. We agree with him in part and reverse and remand the case for a new trial.

         The State charged the defendant and co-defendant with murder in the first degree. The trial court severed their cases. The co-defendant ultimately confessed to his involvement, but claimed the defendant threatened him into doing it and paid him for it. He provided the State with a testimonial proffer in exchange for his plea to a reduced charge and his agreement to testify against the defendant at trial. The defendant entered a not guilty plea.

         Prior to trial, the defendant moved in limine to preclude the admission of the co-defendant's statements and recorded conversations in which he inculpated the defendant. The motion also sought to exclude the defendant's taped telephone conversation with the victim's father, letters he wrote from jail to the co-defendant and another inmate, and parts of his authored book (The Prince of Pentium). The court denied the motion.

         At trial, the victim's neighbor testified that he heard gunshots on the night of the murder. He looked outside and saw a man driving a blue-and-white motorcycle down the street.

         Before the State called the victim's father to testify, the defendant renewed his objection to the introduction of the recorded phone call between him and the victim's father the day after the murder. The trial court overruled the objection.

         The victim's father explained the defendant had previously dated his daughter. On the night of the murder, the defendant called to speak with her. She told her father the defendant would be coming over to meet with her outside. Her father asked her not to go out.

         About ten to fifteen minutes after his daughter went outside, the father heard several gunshots and a motorcycle speeding away. When he went outside, he saw his daughter lying on the ground.

         After the paramedics arrived, the father went into the house to get dressed and follow the ambulance. The phone began ringing. When the answering machine picked up, he heard the defendant's voice asking what happened. The defendant continued to call the victim's father numerous times after he returned from the hospital.

         The next day two detectives came to the victim's home. The defendant called again while the detectives were there. They recorded the call.

         The trial court admitted the recorded phone call, which revealed the defendant continuously asking the victim's father what happened the night before. The victim's father accused him of shooting the victim; the defendant adamantly denied being involved. The father called the defendant a liar, a punk, and a junkie.

         After the call, the defendant reached out to the detectives and agreed to talk to them. During his conversation with them, the defendant admitted to talking to the victim on the night of the murder. He agreed to stop by and see her, but claimed he never came by. Instead, he went to a friend's home on his motorcycle. He denied shooting the victim or knowing who shot her. The detectives saw a white motorcycle with blue lights parked at the defendant's house.

         As the State prepared to call the co-defendant to testify, the co-defendant presented a letter to the court. In the letter he claimed he never killed the victim. He completely recanted his prior statements. The trial court read the letter and gave copies to both parties. The State advised the court the co-defendant was unwilling to testify against the defendant, and asked the court to declare him unavailable.

         In lieu of the co-defendant's live testimony, the State offered the testimony of the co-defendant's friend[1] and his recorded conversations with the co-defendant. The co-defendant told his friend that he killed the victim by shooting her five times in the chest and the defendant paid him to do it. He provided other details of the murder including the use of the defendant's motorcycle, where he shot the victim, the type of gun used, and where he got rid of the gun. He said the victim "knew too much" and assumed that is why the defendant hired him to do the job.

         Upon his fiancée's urging, the friend met with the police. He agreed to record his conversations with the co-defendant, and was paid for doing so. The State entered these recordings into evidence over defense counsel's objections.

         In the recorded conversations made in casual settings, the co-defendant told the informant that the defendant wanted the victim's entire family dead. He explained how he felt driving away from the scene of the crime. He admitted that he and the defendant drank beer, smoked pot, and/or took Xanax, but denied that they were incoherent during the conversations.

         The trial court also allowed the State to admit several letters written by the defendant over defense counsel's objections. In these letters, the defendant references characters, Prince and Pistol G, from the defendant's book Prince of Pentium. A forensic document examiner verified the defendant's handwriting.

         While in custody, the defendant sent the letters to the co-defendant and another inmate in the same facility. They contained threats to the co-defendant's girlfriend, suggested that he was a snitch and was talking too much. He encouraged the co-defendant to tell the truth and admit that neither of them were involved in the murder. The co-defendant provided some of the letters to his attorney.

         To explain the characters referenced in the letters, the State admitted a portion of the defendant's book, again over defense counsel's objection. The trial court commented that the book had probative value to give context to the reference to Pistol G within the letters.

         The jury found the defendant guilty. He moved for a new trial, which the court denied. The defendant now appeals.

         We review decisions on the admission of evidence for an "'abuse of discretion, limited by the rules of evidence.'" Lucas v. State, 67 So.3d 332, 335 (Fla. 4th DCA 2011) (citation omitted). "'In considering a trial court's ruling on admissibility of evidence over an objection based on the Confrontation Clause, our standard of review is de novo.'" McWatters v. State, 36 So.3d 613, 637 (Fla. 2010) (citation omitted).


         The defendant argues the trial court erred in admitting the co-defendant's out-of-court statements because they lacked the required "particularized guarantees of trustworthiness" and violated the Confrontation Clause. The State responds that the statements were not testimonial and not subject to Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004). It also argues the statements qualified as statements against the declarant's penal interest under section 90.804(2)(c), Florida Statutes (2016). The statements possessed those guarantees of trustworthiness because they were made to a longtime friend in a personal setting and his descriptions matched police-gathered information.

         o The Confrontation Clause

         In Lilly v. Virginia, 527 U.S. 116 (1999), the Court discussed hearsay statements in the context of the Confrontation Clause. "[T]he veracity of hearsay statements is sufficiently dependable to allow the untested admission of such statements against an accused when (1) 'the evidence falls within a firmly rooted hearsay exception' or (2) it contains 'particularized guarantees of trustworthiness' such that adversarial testing would be expected to add little, if anything, to the statements reliability." Id. at 124-25 (quoting Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U.S. 56, 66 (1980)).

         The Court categorized statements against penal interest: "(1) as voluntary admissions against the declarant; (2) as exculpatory evidence offered by a defendant who claims that the declarant committed, or was involved in, the offense; and (3) as evidence offered by the prosecution to establish the guilt of an alleged accomplice of the declarant." Id. at 127.

         The Court indicated that statements which fall within category (3) "are presumptively unreliable," causing them to fall outside the realm of firmly rooted exceptions to the hearsay rule. Id. at 131. And when they do so, the statements "must possess indicia of reliability by virtue of [their] inherent trustworthiness" to be admitted. Id. at 138. The Court held that ...

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