Bush v. State

Decision Date14 May 2020
Docket NumberNo. SC18-227,SC18-227
Parties Sean Alonzo BUSH, Appellant, v. STATE of Florida, Appellee.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

James S. Purdy, Public Defender, Raymond M. Warren and Nancy Jean Ryan, Assistant Public Defenders, Seventh Judicial Circuit, Daytona Beach, Florida, for Appellant

Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, and Doris Meacham, Assistant Attorney General, Daytona Beach, Florida, for Appellee


This case is before the Court on appeal from a judgment of conviction of first-degree murder and a sentence of death. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const. In 2017, the appellant, Sean Alonzo Bush, was convicted in St. Johns County of the 2011 murder of his estranged wife, Nicole Bush. He was convicted under both the first-degree premeditated and felony murder theories and was also convicted of burglary of a dwelling with an assault and while armed with a firearm. The jury unanimously recommended that Bush be sentenced to death for the murder, and the trial court sentenced him accordingly. This direct appeal followed. As we explain below, we affirm the defendant's convictions and sentence of death.

Additionally, we note that Bush's convictions in this case are wholly based upon circumstantial evidence. As in all death cases, the sufficiency of the evidence to support Bush's first-degree murder conviction is at issue, see Caylor v. State , 78 So. 3d 482, 500 (Fla. 2011), requiring that we consider the appropriate standard of review for this important evaluation. For many years, Florida has been an outlier in that we have used a different standard to evaluate evidence on appeal in a wholly circumstantial evidence case than in a case with some direct evidence. See Knight v. State , 107 So. 3d 449, 456-57 (Fla. 5th DCA 2013), approved , 186 So. 3d 1005 (Fla. 2016). As we will explain, we now join all federal courts and the vast majority of state courts in abandoning this special appellate standard, primarily for the same reason that Florida abandoned the special circumstantial evidence standard for use in instructing juries in 1981. In re Standard Jury Instructions in Criminal Cases , 431 So. 2d 594, 595 (Fla. 1981) (rejecting the special standard for evaluating circumstantial evidence as "confusing and incorrect") (quoting Holland v. United States , 348 U.S. 121, 139-40, 75 S.Ct. 127, 99 L.Ed. 150 (1954) ).


In May 2011, Nicole Bush (Nicole) was brutally attacked in her Julington Creek townhome. Medical examiner testimony later revealed that she was shot six times, then beaten and stabbed. Nicole initially survived the attack but succumbed to her injuries in a hospital hours later. The investigation revealed that her estranged husband, Sean Bush, was a significant person of interest in the murder, and it ultimately led to his arrest and indictment. The evidence presented at trial is summarized as follows.

Guilt Phase
State's Case-in-Chief

At 5:47 a.m. on Tuesday, May 31, 2011, an intruder used the master code to disarm the alarm panel in Nicole's Julington Creek townhome. About thirty minutes later, Nicole called her friend Tracie Walker for help but did not respond when Walker answered the phone. Thinking that Nicole had called her accidentally, Walker hung up the phone, but she was concerned about the unusual phone call and called Nicole back. When Nicole answered the phone, Walker heard her saying "help" and gasping for breath before the phone disconnected. Walker again tried to call Nicole, but the call went directly to Nicole's voicemail.

Walker then called a mutual friend, Lenora Jerry, and asked her to call Nicole. Nicole answered Lenora's phone call and asked for help, saying that she could not make it to the door. Jerry and Walker decided that Jerry, who lived closer to Nicole, would go to Nicole's home to check on her.

Jerry and her husband, Thalmus Billington, traveled together to Julington Creek and called 911 en route to ask that an officer be dispatched to Nicole's home to conduct a welfare check. When they arrived, Jerry observed that Nicole's garage door was up, and the door leading from the garage to the interior of the home was open. Jerry and Billington looked around the outside of the home and did not see any signs of forced entry. Then, they walked through the garage and the interior door into the kitchen, where Jerry called out to Nicole. Nicole did not respond, and Jerry and Billington walked outside and met the responding officer, Deputy Graham Harris.

After talking with Jerry and Billington, Deputy Harris entered the home and announced his presence. Upon hearing a mumbled voice coming from the second floor, Deputy Harris walked up the stairs and noticed red stains on the carpet. He walked to the master bedroom, where Nicole lay in a pool of blood. She was conscious but severely injured. Nicole asked for help and told Deputy Harris that she had been shot in the head. Deputy Harris asked Nicole who attacked her. She said she did not know, but she consistently referred to the attacker as a "he" or "him."

Paramedics arrived shortly thereafter and observed Nicole's "immediately life-threatening" injuries, including multiple gunshot wounds

to her head, as well as bruising and severe swelling. They asked Nicole questions to determine her level of orientation, and although she was generally unresponsive, she continued to ask for help and state that somebody shot her. Nicole was transported to the trauma center at Shands Hospital in Jacksonville, where she died at 8:51 a.m., shortly after arrival.

That afternoon, St. John's County Sheriff's Office Detective Sean Tice received instructions to contact and interview Nicole's husband, Sean Bush. Although Bush and Nicole were married at the time, they had separated and were living apart. Detective Tice and Deputy Jessica Hines went to Bush's home in Jacksonville, informed him of Nicole's death, and proceeded to interview him.

Bush's First Interview: Afternoon of the Murder

Bush explained that he and Nicole met while working for the same company. They married in 2002 and moved to Jacksonville in 2005. They had two minor sons, the younger who was their biological son and the older whom Bush had known since the child was two months old and later adopted. At the time of the murder, the boys were six and nine years old. Bush also had two older children, a son and a daughter who lived out-of-state.

Bush and Nicole started experiencing marital problems in 2006, and they lived apart from one another for several months. Although they reunited in 2007, they continued to have problems and eventually separated in 2009. Bush said that he and Nicole had agreed to get divorced and that Nicole had obtained divorce papers.

Nicole and Bush shared in caring for the children, but Nicole was their primary caregiver. Normally, Bush would keep them every other weekend, picking them up on Friday evening and bringing them home to Nicole on Sunday evening between 7 and 7:30 p.m.

In 2010, Nicole purchased the Julington Creek townhome where she and the children lived at the time of the murder. Bush never lived there, but he frequently visited the children, and Nicole paid him to clean the home. Bush did not have his own house key, but he had access to the spare key that Nicole hid in the garage. Bush also knew the passcode to enter the garage from the outside.

Bush was asked to describe his activities in the days leading up to the murder. The weekend before the murder was Memorial Day weekend, and Nicole was murdered the morning after the holiday. Even though the children had spent the previous weekend with Bush, he said that he kept them again throughout the Memorial Day weekend because one of the boys was misbehaving and Nicole asked him to keep the children and the family dog. Bush said that the plan was for him to keep the boys through the weekend and take them to school on Tuesday morning.

Bush explained that on Friday evening, he met Nicole at a restaurant to pick up the boys and then went to the townhome to pick up the dog and some items for the boys. By his account, this was the last time that he used the key to enter the townhome. On Saturday, he took the boys to get haircuts, and they returned to his house afterward and watched television. Bush said that he and the children did not go anywhere on Sunday. He also said that, on Monday, the day before the murder, he was at home with his children all day except for an afternoon trip to the grocery store, and the last time he spoke with Nicole was later that night. Bush said that he remained at home all night until it was time to take the children to school at approximately 7:15 on Tuesday morning. Later, however, he said he left home that morning to check gas prices while the children were getting dressed for school, but did not purchase any gas. He returned home after taking the children to school.

Bush said that at the time of the murder, he was dating a woman named Sharon Bennett, and he was good friends with a woman named Brenda Eckling (Brenda Daniels).1 Bennett testified that she met Bush on the internet around 2009. She did not know that Bush was married at first; she found out on social media after knowing him for about one year. When Bennett confronted Bush via text message about his being married, Bush admitted to it but said that he was in the process of getting a divorce. Around New Year's Day in 2011, the two were discussing marriage. Bennett told Bush that she did not want to be his secret anymore and that he needed to finalize his divorce if their relationship was to continue. After that discussion, Bush showed Bennett some divorce paperwork, and she believed that the process was moving along.

When asked if he knew of anyone who might have a motive to kill Nicole, Bush suggested that Nicole's work as a collection agent might have given someone a motive.

Before the interview ended, Bush agreed to provide his cell phone to the St. Johns County...

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