Franco v. State, 4

Decision Date06 December 2000
Docket Number99-814,4
CourtFlorida District Court of Appeals

Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, Palm Beach County; Howard C. Berman, Judge; L.T. Case No. 98-1684 CFA02U.

Glenn H. Mitchell, West Palm Beach, for appellant.

Robert A. Butterworth, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Heidi L. Bettendorf, Assistant Attorney General, West Palm Beach, for appellee.


Appellant was convicted of second degree murder with a firearm and attempted robbery with a firearm. He argues that the trial court erred in the denial of a challenge of a juror for cause and the denial of his motion for disqualification. We reverse.

Appellant was convicted of being the shooter in a murder described in Glatzmayer v. State, 745 So. 2d 71 (Fla. 4th DCA), rev. granted, (Fla. July 18, 2000)(Table, No. SC00-602).

On voir dire, one of the jurors was asked how she would react if appellant did not take the witness stand or put on a defense, and she responded that she would "find him guilty." After further discussion including an explanation about burden of proof quoted in the dissent, the juror's final response was: "It is interesting. I guess I still have to go with the State.... Because I'm not hearing any other side."

As this court explained in Bryant v. State, 765 So. 2d 68, 71 (Fla. 4th DCA 2000):

In assessing a juror's competence, the test is " 'whether the juror can lay aside any bias or prejudice and render his [or her] verdict solely upon the evidence presented and the instructions on the law given to him [or her] by the court.' " If there is any reasonable doubt about the juror's ability to be impartial, he should be excused. " 'Close cases should be resolved in favor of excusing the juror rather than leaving a doubt as to his or her impartiality.' " [citations omitted]

The state responds that this juror stated that "I would like to think I can be impartial." The problem with the state's reliance on that is that it was given before she expressed her problems with the burden of proof and presumption of innocence. Her statement of impartiality was made after she had indicated that the fact that the crime in this case involved drugs and alcohol would influence her because of her son's problems. This juror never stated that she could follow the law after expressing her problems with the burden of proof and presumption of innocence. There was no attempt to rehabilitate the juror. See Marguez v. State, 721 So. 2d 1206, 1207 (Fla. 3d DCA 1998). Even if she had, it would not have necessarily made her acceptable. Akins v. State, 694 So. 2d 847 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997); Huber v. State, 669 So. 2d 1079 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996).

The state also cites Mendoza v. State, 700 So. 2d 670 (Fla. 1997) for the proposition that the trial court is in the best position to assess a juror's demeanor and sincerity, and should not be reversed absent an abuse of discretion. Where, as in this case, a juror expresses views on a defendant's failure to testify or put on evidence, and there is no subsequent change in those views, the trial court's superior vantage point and discretion are of little consequence. We agree with appellant that a new trial is required.

Appellant also argues that his motion to disqualify the judge before sentencing should have been granted. The motion to disqualify, which was filed after the jury found appellant guilty, was supported with an affidavit of appellant's counsel, which stated in part:

5. During the trial and at all times material up to today, the undersigned in good faith believes that the Honorable Howard Berman has exhibited such animosity and disrespect for the undersigned defense counsel that the Defendant, RAMON FRANCO, believes that said judge is prejudiced and biased against the Defendant and he will not be sentenced fairly.

6. More specifically, during the trial the Honorable Howard Berman on several occasions, in open court, raised his voice and yelled at the defense counsel while representing the Defendant at trial. Further, Judge Berman's facial gestures and conduct exhibited a lack of control and lack of judicial temperament.

7. It appeared that the Honorable Howard Berman was displeased by the jury's verdict in the Defendant, RAMON FRANCO's case. Before the jury was dismissed, the Honorable Howard Berman made a special point of berating defense counsel before the members of the jury for a delay between the parties resting their case and closing arguments. In fact, the Honorable Howard Berman misrepresented the actual circumstances to the jury as part of the delay was directly attributable to Judge Berman wanting to hold his morning calendar to hear other cases. Therefore closing arguments were set in the afternoon rather than in the morning.

8. Further, subsequently in an unrelated case, the undersigned entered an appearance on behalf of another client whose case was before Judge Berman. When the undersigned appeared at calendar call, just several days after his appearance, Judge Berman in open court told the undersigned attorney that he was entering this case "at his own peril." The undersigned interpreted this comment as a personal threat.

The affidavit also alleged that appellant's counsel had recently learned that the trial court, in front of other lawyers, had suggested that appellant's counsel had lied to the court about being unable to appear because he was in trial in another case. Appellant also supported the motion with his own affidavit expressing the fear that he would not be sentenced fairly because of the court's animosity towards his counsel.

A trial court's prejudice against an attorney may be grounds for disqualification when such prejudice is of a degree that it adversely effects the litigant. Ginsberg v. Holt, 86 So. 2d 650 (Fla. 1956). The focus in criminal cases should be on the defendant's rights. Robinson v. Tobin, 547 So. 2d 714 (Fla. 3d DCA 1989). We agree with appellant that the trial court should have granted the motion to disqualify. Accordingly, another judge should be assigned for appellant's new trial.

We have considered the other issues raised by appellant and find them to be without merit, except for one sentencing issue, which could arise again after retrial. That issue is whether a life sentence without any form of early release, which can be imposed when sentencing points total 363, is a departure sentence requiring written findings.

Our sentencing guidelines statute, section 921.0014, Florida Statutes (1997) provides in subsection (2):

State prison months = total sentence points minus 28.

The recommended sentence length in state prison months may be increased by up to, and including, 25 percent or decreased by up to, and including, 25 percent, at the discretion of the court. The recommended sentence length may not be increased if the total sentence points have been increased for that offense by up to, and including, 15 percent. If a recommended sentence under the guidelines exceeds the maximum sentence otherwise authorized by s. 775.082, the sentence recommended under the guidelines must be imposed absent a departure.

If the total sentence points are equal to or greater than 363, the court may sentence the offender to life imprisonment. An offender sentenced to life imprisonment under this section is not eligible for any form of discretionary early release, except pardon, executive clemency, or conditional medical release under s. 947.149. (emphasis added).

Appellant, who was fifteen years old at the time this crime occurred, scored 411 points on the sentencing guidelines scoresheet, which corresponded to a recommended sentence of 31.9 years. The trial court sentenced him to life under the above emphasized provision, but did not provide findings which are required if this is a departure sentence. See § 921.001(5) and (6).

Appellant argues that this sentence is a departure sentence requiring written findings, but acknowledges that there is authority to the contrary. In Kalapp v. State, 729 So. 2d 987, 990 (Fla. 5th DCA 1999), the defendant was given a life sentence under section 921.0014(2), because his guidelines scoresheet reflected more than 363 points, but the court rejected his claim that written findings were required, stating:

Succinctly stated, Mr....

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