Chavez v. State

Decision Date25 June 2009
Docket NumberNo. SC08-970.,No. SC07-952.,SC07-952.,SC08-970.
Citation12 So.3d 199
PartiesJuan Carlos CHAVEZ, Appellant, v. STATE of Florida, Appellee. Juan Carlos Chavez, Petitioner, v. Walter A. McNeil, etc., Respondent.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

Bill McCollum, Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, and Scott A. Browne, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, Florida, for Appellee/Respondent.


Juan Carlos Chavez appeals the denial of his motion to vacate a judgment of conviction of first-degree murder and sentence of death under Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.851. He also petitions this Court for a writ of habeas corpus. Pursuant to our mandatory jurisdiction to review final orders arising from capital proceedings, we affirm the circuit court's order and deny the habeas petition. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), (9), Fla. Const.


In 1998, Chavez was convicted of the first-degree murder, kidnapping, and sexual battery of Samuel James ("Jimmy") Ryce. Chavez confessed that on the afternoon of September 11, 1995, he abducted Jimmy at gunpoint from a school bus stop in the Redlands, a rural area of South Miami-Dade County, and proceeded to sexually assault Jimmy before fatally shooting the nine-year-old boy. See Chavez v. State, 832 So.2d 730, 738 (Fla.2002).1 He was arrested in December of 1995, after his employer found Jimmy's book bag and textbooks inside a trailer occupied by Chavez. See id. at 737.

A team from the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office represented Chavez during his capital trial, which was held in Orange County from August through September 1998. The jury entered a guilty verdict on each of the charged offenses. See id. at 747. Following the penalty phase of the trial, the jury recommended death by a unanimous vote. See id. In accord with this recommendation, the trial court imposed a death sentence for the murder and consecutive terms of life imprisonment with three-year mandatory minimum sentences for the kidnapping and sexual battery convictions. See id.2 Chavez sought review in this Court, which affirmed his convictions and sentences. See id.3

In 2004, Chavez filed a motion to vacate his convictions and sentences pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.851. The circuit court issued an order that summarily denied all but eleven claims, for which it granted an evidentiary hearing. However, during the evidentiary hearing, counsel abandoned or waived several claims.4 Accordingly, the postconviction court considered evidence with regard to the following claims: (1) Chavez's confession and the evidence presented during his trial were inconsistent; (2) Chavez was not involved in the defense; (3) counsel advised Chavez to testify falsely concerning his watch; (4) counsel failed to locate a witness who owned and lived in the place where the murder occurred and who would have testified that he was the owner of the items recovered from that location; (5) counsel failed to consult with Chavez with regard to preparation for the penalty phase; (6) counsel failed to provide the best defense possible because of interference from the Miami-Dade Public Defender based on concern about the political consequences of the defense; (7) counsel failed to investigate and call witnesses to present evidence that Chavez involuntarily waived his rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966); and (9) counsel failed to present a witness who could have provided testimony with regard to mental health mitigation. After a full hearing, the postconviction court entered an order that denied the remaining claims.

In his appeal of this denial, Chavez asserts that (1) the postconviction court erred in ruling that a lawyer who had studied the Cuban legal system was not qualified to offer opinion testimony concerning the Cuban and American criminal justice systems; (2) the postconviction court erred in determining that counsel was effective despite the failure to present evidence of mental health mitigation through the testimony of a psychologist; and (3) there was a per se denial of effective assistance of trial counsel because discord amongst the defense team rendered the adversarial process inherently unreliable. In his habeas petition, Chavez argues that (1) ineffective appellate representation occurred during the direct appeal for the failure to challenge the constitutionality of Florida's lethal-injection protocol; (2) counsel failed to assert that Florida's standard penalty-phase jury instructions unconstitutionally shift the burden of proof to the defendant; (3) counsel failed to challenge the penalty-phase jury instructions with regard to minimizing and denigrating the role of the jury; and (4) cumulative errors deprived him of the effective assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Alienage Claim

During the evidentiary hearing, Chavez sought to introduce the testimony of Michael Amezaga, a Florida attorney with an interest in the Cuban criminal justice system. The asserted purpose of this expert testimony was to demonstrate that Chavez involuntarily waived his Miranda rights because he misunderstood the nature of the rights afforded under the American legal system in contrast to those of the Cuban legal system. The postconviction court did not qualify the witness as an expert on the basis that he lacked the requisite level of knowledge concerning the comparative study of the Cuban and American criminal justice systems. Chavez was thus unable to present this evidence in support of his claim of ineffective representation for the failure to present testimony during the suppression hearing that Chavez's alienage affected his ability to voluntarily waive his Miranda rights. Here, Chavez asserts that the postconviction court erred in this determination because the witness held the proper knowledge and expertise to testify on the subject of alienage.

It is within the court's discretion to determine the qualifications of a witness to express an expert opinion, and this determination will not be reversed absent a clear showing of error. See Brooks v. State, 762 So.2d 879, 892 (Fla.2000). Before an expert may render an opinion, the witness must satisfy a four-prong test of admissibility. Section 90.702, Florida Statutes (2007), provides:

If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact in understanding the evidence or in determining a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify about it in the form of an opinion; however, the opinion is admissible only if it can be applied to evidence at trial.

This section requires the court to make two preliminary determinations: (1) whether the subject matter will assist the trier of fact in understanding the evidence or in determining a disputed fact, and (2) whether the witness is adequately qualified to express an opinion on the matter. See Huck v. State, 881 So.2d 1137, 1149 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004). Once these threshold determinations are affirmatively satisfied, two more requirements must be satisfied for the admission of expert opinion testimony. The expert opinion must apply to evidence presented during the hearing, and the danger of unfair prejudice must not substantially outweigh the probative value of the opinion. See Glendening v. State, 536 So.2d 212, 220 (Fla.1988).

The present case involves only the second determination — that is, whether the witness was qualified to express an opinion on the subject matter to be addressed. A witness may be qualified as an expert through specialized knowledge, training, or education, which is not limited to academic, scientific, or technical knowledge. An expert witness may acquire this specialized knowledge through an occupation or business or frequent interaction with the subject matter. See Weese v. Pinellas County, 668 So.2d 221, 223 (Fla. 2d DCA 1996) (citing Harvey v. State, 129 Fla. 289, 176 So. 439, 440 (1937) (witnesses were qualified as expert cattlemen and butchers based upon many years of experience in such business and occupation and knowledge acquired thereby)). However, general knowledge is insufficient. The witness must possess specialized knowledge concerning the discrete subject related to the expert opinion to be presented. See Charles W. Ehrhardt, Florida Evidence § 702.1, at 686-87 (2008 ed.).

Mr. Amezaga's qualifications and proffered testimony consisted of some research, two visits to Cuba, which involved research and discussions with Cuban lawyers, and one discussion with Chavez. Chavez suggests that the qualifications of his expert were similar to those of the witness found sufficient in Brooks v. State, 762 So.2d 879 (Fla.2000). In addressing the matter as one of first impression, we held in Brooks that the trial court did not err in ruling that an experienced dealer of crack cocaine was qualified to testify as an expert with regard to the identity and approximate weight of a rocky substance contained in a sandwich bag. See id. at 891-94. In reaching this conclusion, we reviewed decisions from Florida and other jurisdictions that qualified police officers or experienced drug dealers and users as narcotics-identification experts. See, e.g., United States v. Dominguez, 992 F.2d 678, 681 (7th Cir.1993); A.A. v. State, 461 So.2d 165, 165-66 & n. 1 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984). Here, Chavez has not submitted decisions concerning whether a witness could be qualified as an expert with regard to legal systems or how that expertise, even if it existed, might translate into expertise on the subject here.

Moreover, the cases considered in Brooks identified a consistent factor in witness qualification, which was the witness's familiarity and experience with the narcotic acquired through freq...

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  • Foster v. State
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    • Florida Supreme Court
    • January 31, 2014
    ...the sufficiency of the jury instructions that were virtually identical to Jury Instruction 7.11). We also made clear in Chavez v. State, 12 So.3d 199, 214 (Fla.2009), that the claims Foster raises are without merit. We stated: This Court has repeatedly rejected claims that the standard jury......
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