Huff v. State

Decision Date28 August 1986
Docket NumberNo. 65695,65695
Citation495 So.2d 145,11 Fla. L. Weekly 451
Parties11 Fla. L. Weekly 451 James Roger HUFF, Appellant, v. STATE of Florida, Appellee.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

James B. Gibson, Public Defender and Christopher S. Quarles, Chief, Capital Appeals, Asst. Public Defender, Seventh Judicial Circuit, Daytona Beach, for appellant.

Jim Smith, Atty. Gen. and Ellen D. Phillips, Asst. Atty. Gen., Daytona Beach, for appellee.


The appellant, James Roger Huff, was convicted in October 1980 of two counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to death for the killing of his parents, Norman and Genevieve Huff. In Huff v. State, 437 So.2d 1087 (Fla.1983) (Huff I), we reversed the convictions and sentences and remanded for a new trial. This appeal is from the new trial where appellant was again convicted and sentenced to death on both counts. We have jurisdiction, article V, section 3(b)(1), Florida Constitution, and affirm the conviction and the sentences.

On April 21, 1980, the victims were found murdered in a remote (public dump) area of Sumter County, near Wildwood, Florida. Appellant was the first person to report the killings. He appeared at the house of a nearby resident, Foster, and had Foster notify the police. The version of events appellant told to Foster, the police and eventually the jury in the instant case, was essentially that an unknown person or persons standing beside a green Ford LTD, which was parked on a remote road, had "flagged down" the Huffs while appellant was driving on the day of the murders. When the appellant stopped to render assistance, this alleged assailant entered the Huff's vehicle at gunpoint, forcing the appellant to drive wherever the assailant directed; the green Ford was allegedly following behind the Huff's vehicle. Eventually they ended up at the dump site where the assailant robbed the Huffs. Appellant claimed he was knocked unconscious, and when he awoke outside the vehicle, found both his parents dead beside their vehicle.

Appellant's first allegation of error concerns the exclusion of an expert witness's testimony offered by the defense. An integral part of appellant's defense of innocence at trial was that the crime scene was improperly processed and contaminated resulting in the destruction of evidence concerning the alleged assailants and their vehicle. Several weeks into the trial below, on a Friday, the defense attempted to introduce as an expert witness White, a retired police officer, concerning the improper and inadequate processing of the crime scene. During a proffer of the witness, the state brought out that White had neither visited the crime scene nor read the testimony or reports of the investigating officers at the scene. The trial court, without ruling on White's status as an expert, ruled that the information upon which White was to base his opinions was so "totally inadequate" that his testimony would not only be incompetent, it would also be irrelevant and immaterial. Over the weekend, White read a portion of the reports and transcripts, but his testimony was again rejected by the trial judge.

The two relevant factors for trial courts to consider when determining the admissibility of expert testimony are:

First, the subject must be beyond the common understanding of the average layman. Second, the witness must have such knowledge as "will probably aid the trier of facts in its search for truth." Mills v. Redwing Carriers, Inc., 127 So.2d 453, 456 (Fla. 2d DCA 1961).

Buchman v. Seaboard Coast Line Railroad Co., 381 So.2d 229, 230 (Fla.1980).

The critical factor for our analysis here is whether this testimony would aid the trier of fact. It is axiomatic that it is within the province of the trial court to determine whether to admit the testimony of a purported expert witness. The decision of the trial court is conclusive unless erroneous or founded upon error in law. See, e.g., Fred Howland, Inc. v. Morris, 143 Fla. 189, 196 So. 472 (1940) and cases cited therein.

A general rule of law concerning the admissibility of expert witness testimony is that the expert, once qualified by the trial court as such, normally decides for himself whether he has sufficient facts on which to base an opinion. The exception to this rule is when the factual predicate submitted to the expert omits facts which are obviously necessary to the formation of an opinion. When the factual predicate is so lacking, the trial court may properly refuse to allow the testimony. Spradley v. State, 442 So.2d 1039 (Fla. 2d DCA 1983); Johnson v. State, 314 So.2d 248 (Fla. 1st DCA 1975); Nat Harrison Associates, Inc. v. Byrd, 256 So.2d 50 (Fla. 4th DCA 1971).

Our review of the record indicates that, at best, White's testimony would have been a general critique of proper police practice in processing crime scenes, a collateral and irrelevant issue. His testimony would have presented no probative evidence of appellant's guilt or innocence. We conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by finding that the witness White had such an inadequate factual basis for his opinion that his testimony would not have aided the trier of fact.

Appellant's next contention concerns an allegedly improper judicial comment on the appellant's veracity during cross-examination of the appellant. 1 The context in which the remark was made shows that this claim is meritless. Counsel for appellant objected to the form of a question. The trial judge held that the form of the state's question was proper because the appellant's answer was "vague." Appellant claimed that his motion for mistrial should have been granted. We disagree. The comment by the trial court was in direct response to legal argument from counsel and was simply a neutral ruling on the objection allowing the objected-to question to be asked again. Any prejudice which theoretically could have resulted from the remark could have been dispelled had the defense requested a curative instruction from the trial court. Henderson v. State, 463 So.2d 196 (Fla.), cert. denied, 473 U.S. 916, 105 S.Ct. 3542, 87 L.Ed.2d 665 (1985). We find that the trial court acted within its discretion in denying the defendant's motion for mistrial. Salvatore v. State, 366 So.2d 745 (Fla.1978), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 885, 100 S.Ct. 177, 62 L.Ed.2d 115 (1979). Johnsen v. State, 332 So.2d 69 (Fla.1976).

Appellant next claims as error the trial court's failure to suppress an inculpatory statement made by the appellant. Once the police arrived on the murder scene appellant was given his Miranda 2 warnings and was placed in the back of a Wildwood police car by Officer Overly. Shortly thereafter, Sheriff Johnson arrived on the scene, put his head in the police car and asked what had happened. Appellant responded, "I shot them in the face." Johnson testified that the appellant put his hands over his face and would not respond to Johnson's question of whom he had shot. When the appellant spoke again he stated, "They shot them in the face."

In Huff I, the trial court determined that the Miranda warnings were adequate and determined that the statement was admissible. Due to the unavailability of Overly at trial, however, the statement was not used in Huff I. Appellant's claim sub judice is that the trial judge erroneously relied on the "law of the case" from Huff I to determine the admissibility of the statement. Our review of the record reveals that this is simply not so. A new suppression hearing was held and Overly was questioned extensively by counsel concerning the adequacy of the Miranda warnings. Overly testified that he read appellant the warnings from the standard form used by the Wildwood police which was subsequently introduced into evidence at trial. Overly had originally testified at the Huff I suppression hearing that appellant understood his rights. His testimony at the instant suppression hearing was essentially that, with the passage of four years since the first trial, he was not as sure that appellant fully understood the warnings. Although Overly's most recent testimony is somewhat ambiguous, the inferences drawn from his testimony were resolved by the trial court in favor of the state, and we will not substitute our judgment for that of the trial court. Ross v. State, 386 So.2d 1191, 1195 (Fla.1980). In ruling the statement admissible following the suppression hearing, the trial judge held: "The state has shown by preponderance of the evidence that the Miranda warning was adequately given. I feel it is law of the case and res judicata and will not disturb the original ruling." The trial court's statement on law of the case simply was his way of stating that no new evidence had been presented in this suppression hearing that would require overturning the Huff I holding on this issue. This was not error.

Appellant's next allegation is that it was error for the trial court to allow witnesses Foster and Williams to give opinion testimony on an ultimate issue. Appellant's first claim concerns Foster, the neighbor who called the police at appellant's behest. Foster testified that after he viewed the murder scene, he told his son "this thing don't look right. How is it that three people in the car, two people on the road and he's out over here." When the state asked Foster what didn't look right, the defense objected that this called for an opinion and had already been answered. We find that this testimony was already before the jury when appellant objected. Even were we to assume that this was error, it would clearly be harmless. A judgment will not be reversed unless the error was prejudicial to the substantial rights of the appellant. Palmes v. State, 397 So.2d 648, 653 (Fla.), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 882, 102 S.Ct. 369, 70 L.Ed.2d 195 (1981). There is no such showing here. Appellant's next cited instance on this issue concerns the testimony of Williams, one of the homicide investigators at the crime scene....

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    • United States
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