Johnson v. State, 80278

Decision Date08 May 1997
Docket NumberNo. 80278,80278
Citation696 So.2d 317
Parties22 Fla. L. Weekly S256 Ronnie JOHNSON, Appellant, v. STATE of Florida, Appellee.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

John H. Lipinski and Maria Brea Lipinski, Miami, for Appellant.

Robert A. Butterworth, Attorney General and Fariba N. Komeily, Assistant Attorney General, Miami, for Appellee.


We have on appeal the judgment and sentence of the trial court imposing the death penalty upon Ronnie Johnson. We have jurisdiction. Art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const. We affirm both his conviction of first-degree murder and the death sentence subsequently imposed.

The record reflects the following. Lee Arthur Lawrence was murdered on March 20, 1989. Four suspects were charged in the crime. Ronnie Johnson and Bobbie Robinson were convicted, in separate trials, of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. 1 David Ingraham was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Rodney Newsome was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to twenty-two years in prison.

The relevant incident occurred in the evening of March 20, 1989, at Lee's Grocery in Dade County. Working in the store at the time of the shooting were Valerie Briggs 2 and Juanita Meyers. 3 Bernard Williams had come to the store with his dog. 4 He was Meyers' boyfriend. Before closing time, Briggs asked Meyers to take the trash outside. At that time, the owner (and victim) Lawrence left his office and went to the parking lot. Williams also exited to check on his dog. 5 Outside, customer Josias Dukes was using a telephone. Due to his vantage point, Dukes was able to identify Ingraham as the perpetrator who carried the Uzi, a semiautomatic firearm. With these persons present, the violence began. Ingraham opened fire on Bernard Williams. Williams was hit in the back and fell to the ground. Ingraham then shot at Lawrence. Lawrence also fell to the ground. At this point, Johnson exited the store (he had been making a purchase inside) and started firing his revolver at Lawrence. Ingraham started firing shots at Dukes. Both Ingraham and Johnson fired stray shots in various directions. Lawrence was killed in this incident. Neither Dukes nor Williams died.

Johnson subsequently confessed to multiple crimes. In his confession, Johnson indicated that "G" had hired him to murder Lawrence. The victim was targeted because of his anti-drug efforts in the community. Johnson stated that he had been offered $1500 to commit the murder.

Prior to trial, Johnson moved to suppress the confession. 6 A hearing on the motion was held on June 28, 1991. A total of five persons testified at the hearing. The defense called Johnson. The State called Milton Hull, Gregg Smith, Thomas Romagni, and Danny Borrego.

Officer Hull testified that he found Johnson on his grandmother's porch eating a hot sausage on April 1, 1989. Hull called Johnson over to him. It was a little after 6 p.m. Hull told Johnson that some investigators wanted to talk to him about a murder. If Johnson was willing, Hull would take him to the investigators and bring him back. Actually however, other detectives transported Johnson after he agreed to go. Hull testified that Johnson was not handcuffed when he was transported. Detective Gregory Smith also testified that Johnson was not handcuffed when he was transported to the Team Police Office. At that point, Johnson signed a 7 Metropolitan Dade County Police Department Miranda warning form. Detective Thomas Romagni testified that he witnessed Johnson sign this form. Romagni stated that Johnson was not handcuffed when the Miranda form was read to him. Detective Danny Borrego then testified that, prior to the signing of the Miranda form, he ascertained that Johnson understood the English language, could read, and was not under the influence of drugs or narcotics. In sum, all four officers expressly testified that they neither threatened Johnson nor promised him anything. On the other hand, Johnson testified that he was handcuffed while being taken to headquarters. He also said that he was told he could avoid the electric chair by cooperating. Johnson stated that he was punched in the chest and arms by investigators during the questioning. Johnson testified that he asked to speak with his family. He says that he was told he could do so only after "what they were doing was over with." Further, he testified that he was scared for his family when he signed the sworn statement.

The motion to suppress was denied. The case proceeded to trial. The jury convicted Johnson of first-degree murder for the death of Lawrence, attempted first-degree murder in the shooting of Williams, and aggravated assault in the shooting towards Dukes. After hearing penalty-phase evidence, the jury recommended that a death sentence be imposed by a margin of seven to five. The trial judge then sentenced Johnson to death on July 16, 1992. In his sentencing order, he found the following four statutory aggravating circumstances: (1) prior violent felony convictions; 8 (2) great risk of death to many persons; 9 (3) the murder was committed for pecuniary gain; 10 and (4) the murder was committed in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner with no pretense of moral or legal justification. 11 The trial judge then considered the following two statutory mitigating factors: (1) that the defendant was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance at the time of the crime; 12 and (2) the age of the defendant at the time of the crime. 13 The trial judge rejected both of these factors. As for nonstatutory mitigation, the judge found that it was established that Johnson is a good friend and a man who cares for his family. The judge concluded as follows:

But this mitigating evidence is overwhelmingly outweighed by the aggravating circumstances. After presiding at three trials of this Defendant, this Court has come to the conclusion that he is a man who murders people for money. This Court has searched the record and its conscience to find a reason for not imposing the death penalty and has found none.

A sentence of death was imposed. This direct appeal ensues. Johnson raises five issues on appeal. We find no merit in any of these issues.

First, Johnson claims that the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress his confession. As stated, a single hearing was held to determine the admissibility of the confession in all cases involving Johnson. We have analyzed Johnson's claim that his motion to suppress should have been granted in Johnson v. State, 696 So.2d 326 (Fla.1997). We adopt by reference the reasoning and analysis in case No. 79,383 and, accordingly, find no error in the trial court's denial of the motion to suppress.

As his third 14 issue, Johnson complains of improprieties in jury discussions. The trial judge, according to Johnson, erred by failing to declare a mistrial after it was revealed that jurors had improperly communicated with one another. The incident that gave rise to the revelations at issue took place on the morning of May 19, 1992. Juror Layow approached a table where numerous people were sitting. The following account of the incident was given to the judge by Ben Daniel and David Finger.

THE COURT: Mr. Finger, as I understand it, there was a member of our jury panel in the Johnson matter that approached you and Mr. Daniel and asked you some questions?

MR. FINGER: What happened this morning is, we were sitting at table, I was sitting there with Mr. Daniel, also at this table I believe was Mr. Peckins, a private attorney, Tam Wilson, a Circuit Judge, Barry Hodes was still at the table, Emockul Stuart, a private attorney.

We were sitting around having a conversation and a juror comes up and basically interrupts our conversation and inquires if we are attorneys, we indicated, yes.

Then her question was, "Would you mind telling me how long a defendant would serve on a life sentence?"

I recall Mr. Daniel responded, "Well, it depends, what kind of life sentence?"

Then she said, "First degree murder."

Mr. Daniel indicated, "Well, it is a 25 year minimum."

She asked what that means, "25 years without [parole]?"

I recall saying, "What difference does that make, it is not supposed to matter what the penalty is.

Are you a juror?"

Then she said, yes, she is a juror.

"Well, you better tell the Judge."

She left rather rapidly.

Ben Daniel and I and the other guys, rather than leave it to her to bring it to the [court's] attention, we thought we could try to figure out what panel she was sitting on. We realized that [answer].

Based upon this statement to the trial court, Juror Layow was dismissed from the jury. Alternate Salva was named to replace her. The defense, at this point, expressed doubts to the judge as to whether the jurors were being completely candid. The State agreed that a separate voir dire of all jurors would be appropriate. The State suggested that the questions be limited to whether "they have had any conversation with Ms. Layow or whatever." The trial court allowed such individual voir dire to occur. Jurors Quinata, Salva, Carlton, Bruton, Dobson, Delgado, Stone, Preval, Burke, and Kleppenger all testified that they had engaged in no conversations with fellow jurors. Johnson, however, bases his claim on the following testimony from jurors Blanca and Gomez.

Q [Court]: Your name is?

A: Blanca.

Q: Mrs. Blanca, have you had any conversation with Ms. Layow about any matter relating to this case or penalties or anything like that?

A: No, we talked about names, we were confused about names.

Q: That is it? Have you had any conversation with any other member of the jury or any other person about this case?

A: No.

Q: Any questions?

Q [Badini]: What names?

A: Well, we are all confused. There were so many names and nicknames that we got confused at a point.

Q: That is discussion of the case, Judge.

Q: Just elaborate. I would ask you to be as [candid...

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