Cruz v. State

Decision Date01 July 2021
Docket NumberNo. SC20-60,SC20-60
Citation320 So.3d 695
Parties Christian CRUZ, Appellant, v. STATE of Florida, Appellee.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

J. Rafael Rodriguez of Law Offices of J. Rafael Rodriguez, Miami, Florida, for Appellant

Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, and Patrick Bobek, Assistant Attorney General, Daytona Beach, Florida, for Appellee


Christian Cruz appeals his convictions for first-degree murder and other crimes and sentence of death.1 For the reasons explained below, we affirm Cruz's convictions but reverse and remand for the limited purpose of resentencing by the trial court and a new sentencing order.


In 2013, Christian Cruz and codefendant Justen Charles were indicted for the first-degree murder of Christopher Jemery, as well as burglary while armed, robbery with a firearm, and kidnapping. Cruz and Charles were tried separately but before the same trial court. Charles’ trial occurred after Cruz's trial but before Cruz's sentencing. The evidence presented at Cruz's trial showed that on April 26, 2013, Jemery was attacked in his Deltona apartment. The evening before the attack, both Cruz and Charles were together in an apartment in the vicinity of Jemery's apartment. Cruz and Charles were aware that the former resident of the apartment where Jemery was living sold drugs out of the apartment, and Cruz and Charles discussed Jemery's apartment the day before the murder.

The evidence showed that both Cruz and Charles forcefully entered Jemery's apartment. The physical evidence obtained from the apartment showed that there was an assault and attack on Jemery. Blood throughout the apartment demonstrated that Jemery was beaten while inside the apartment. Bloody footprints matching the shoes of Cruz and Charles were found inside the apartment. One of the bedrooms appeared ransacked and had additional blood, the kitchen cabinets had been opened, and a television was taken from the apartment.

Cruz and Charles then placed Jemery in the trunk of Jemery's rental car, drove him to a remote location, and shot him in the head. Jemery was found near the Sanford airport in Seminole County, Florida. Workers at an industrial area saw what they thought was the body of a person lying on the ground in a field adjacent to their warehouse. Because the body lacked identification, the person was given the name of John Doe. John Doe was later identified as Christopher Jemery.

Upon first arrival at the field, emergency personnel made a notation that Jemery was bound with wire and duct tape on his arms and mouth, was alive but nonresponsive, and his breathing was very shallow. Medical examiner testimony would later reveal that Jemery was shot in the head and also sustained a number of injuries to his head, face, hands, and torso, including cuts, bruises, lacerations, and defensive wounds. His wrists showed what appeared to be tape residue from being bound with duct tape. Jemery initially survived the attack but succumbed to his injuries in a hospital within a day.

Evidence showed that the duct tape recovered from the area where Jemery was found matched the leftover roll of duct tape found in Jemery's apartment. A live .22 bullet was found on the floor of Jemery's apartment, which was the same caliber and manufacturer as the .22 shell casing found near Jemery's body. Cruz's fingerprint was found on a piece of duct tape recovered from Jemery's body. Cruz's DNA was found on a swab of blood taken from the front right kick panel and the right front door of Jemery's rental car. Cruz's fingerprint was also found on the Air Jordan shoe box found at Jemery's apartment and on Jemery's cell phone, which was recovered from his rental car. Jemery's rental car was not at his apartment and was later found backed into some bushes near a grocery store in Deltona. The evidence also showed that the same night Jemery was taken from his apartment, Cruz was seen on a bank's ATM surveillance camera using Jemery's bank card and personal identification number (PIN) to withdraw $440 cash from Jemery's account.

At the time of his death, Jemery was renting his apartment from a friend, Mark Walters. Jemery had recently returned to Florida with his girlfriend and young daughter. Walters had previously lived in the apartment in Deltona but had recently vacated the apartment. Walters allowed Jemery to reside in the apartment but retained the ability to go into and out of the apartment. Walters was also a small-time drug dealer who sold drugs from and around his apartment when he lived there. When Jemery took residence in Walters’ apartment, he concluded that the area was not safe. Although he planned to have his girlfriend and young child move into the apartment with him, he asked his girlfriend not to do so because he was concerned for their safety. Instead, his girlfriend moved in with her family who also lived near the area.

The morning of April 26, 2013, Walters came by the apartment and noticed that there was a large amount of blood on the floor of the apartment. He did not see Jemery and assumed that somehow Jemery had injured himself. Walters did not call the police. Testimony also established that a prescription bottle belonging to Walters was later recovered from Charles’ vehicle after Jemery was killed. Christina Raghonath, Jemery's girlfriend, also stopped by Jemery's apartment that morning and called the police when she saw what she described as a "blood bath." Raghonath later went to the hospital to identify Jemery when he was found.

On the evening of May 9, 2013, Cruz was arrested on unrelated charges. Officers Cage and Hilliker of the Orlando Police Department were on patrol at night in Parramore, a high-crime and high-drug area. They witnessed a white sedan driving erratically and making numerous traffic violations, so they tried to initiate a traffic stop but lost sight of the vehicle. After they conducted an area search for the vehicle, they found what they thought was the same white sedan parked nearby. The vehicle was still hot when they found it, and as they checked the license tag of the vehicle, they noticed a male peeking around the corner of the surrounding townhomes several times over a period of 10 to 15 minutes. Officers Cage and Hilliker went around the corner where the male was standing and came upon 3 individuals. As they approached, the officers smelled the odor of burnt cannabis coming from the 3 individuals. Officer Cage asked one of the individuals, who ultimately went unidentified, if he had anything illegal on him. The man said he did not and consented to a search, during which Officer Cage failed to find anything. After searching the first male, Officer Cage turned to the next male, later identified as Cruz. Officer Hilliker observed that Cruz was very nervous. Officer Cage asked Cruz to stand and come to him and asked him if he had anything illegal on him. Cruz responded that he did not. After Cruz took a step or two towards the officers, and while in between them, Cruz started running.

After both officers ran after Cruz for about 15 feet and requested him to stop, Officer Cage deployed his taser on Cruz, resulting in Cruz falling to the ground. Officer Hilliker handcuffed him but could not cuff the second hand until Officer Cage deployed a second cycle of the taser. Officer Hilliker immediately stood Cruz up and searched him. They did not find any drugs, drug paraphernalia, or vehicle keys. When they walked Cruz back to the patrol vehicle and sat him on the curb, Cruz said something to the effect of, "Why don't you just kill me now," and "I'm as good as dead."

Before the trial, Cruz filed a motion to suppress and motion in limine regarding the statements Cruz made to the officers upon arrest. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on Cruz's motion to suppress and heard the testimony of Officers Cage and Hilliker. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding "that the officers conducted the stop legally based upon the circumstances." The trial court issued a written order finding as follows:

The court finds that the officers, based on the totality of the circumstances had a basis for conducting an investigation. In this case, the defendant's action of:
1. spying around the corner of the building or otherwise acting in a suspicious manner,
2. acting nervous when approached,
3. being in an area where the odor of cannabis was prevalent,
4. running after another person had been searched in his presence,
5. at night,
6. being in a high crime/high drug area, constitute a sufficient basis and creates a reasonable articulable suspicion for detention, and subsequent probable cause for arrest as the concealed firearm was found on him.

The trial court also denied Cruz's motion in limine, finding that the statements were relevant and that "given the nature and magnitude of the allegations of [the] crime," the statements were reasonably related to "flight to avoid prosecution."

The guilt phase of trial began on February 18, 2019. During voir dire, a prospective juror asked the trial judge if the jury is allowed to ask questions of the witnesses during trial. The trial judge responded that it depends but generally no. The trial court explained, "Now, if there's something that I believe that needs to be explored, I may let the lawyers know that they need to ask the witness more questions about it. But the evidence that comes from the witness stand, that's the evidence you have to use and apply." The trial court further explained that there are rules of evidence that apply to a witness’ testimony and the lawyers have the burden of asking the right questions. Defense counsel did not object during voir dire.

In the State's opening statement at trial, the prosecutor stated the following:

This was a violent and senseless crime, and Christian Cruz has been indicted for the crimes of first degree murder, burglary while armed, robbery with a firearm, and kidnapping for his participation in the event of April 26 that led to

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