Johnson v. State, 79383

Decision Date08 May 1997
Docket NumberNo. 79383,79383
Citation696 So.2d 326
Parties22 Fla. L. Weekly S253 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. 1

The record reflects the following. Tequila "Sugar Momma" Larkins was the owner of the Sparkle City laundromat in Perrine, Florida. She had owned the facility for at least three years prior to her murder. On March 11, 1989, Larkins locked the front door of the laundromat around 9 p.m. Jerry Briggs and his wife were still finishing their laundry. Eric Bettle, the attendant, and Walter Daniel Hills, Larkins' stepson, were also present. Thereafter, a man came to the locked front door asking for change. Larkins went and got her keys. She unlocked the door. A black man then barged in and started arguing with Larkins. The two started physically fighting. The man was hitting Larkins very hard in her face. Larkins fell. The man got on top of her. He pulled out a gun. Mr. Briggs heard gunshots and felt lead hitting his foot. Larkins died.

In court, Mr. Briggs identified Ronnie Johnson as the perpetrator of the crime. Prior to the in-court identification, Mr. Briggs had identified Johnson in a photographic lineup on April 1, 1989. At the earlier identification session, Mr. Briggs wrote on the back of the photograph he chose that he was eighty percent confident that the photograph reflected the black man he witnessed at the laundromat. At trial, however, Mr. Briggs testified that he was sure that the photograph reflected the culprit. On cross-examination, it was revealed that the prosecutor had reviewed the photographic lineup with Mr. Briggs one week prior to trial. Then, on redirect, Mr. Briggs clarified that the prosecutor did not influence his choice of photographs at the pre-trial review session. The defense moved for a mistrial because the pre-trial review session had not been disclosed. The motion was denied.

In addition to the identifications, Johnson confessed. Prior to trial, though, he moved to suppress the confession. 2 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 Metropolitan Dade County Police Department Miranda 3 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 confession revealed the following. After signing the Miranda form at 7:30 p.m., Johnson gave the sworn statement at 1:43 a.m. on April 2, 1989. The statement concluded at 3:45 a.m. on the same day. Daylight savings time added one extra hour to the length of the statement. Therefore, the one hour statement appears to be two hours long.

The sworn statement indicates that Johnson was approached by an individual named "G" and asked to shoot somebody. Johnson stated that he went to G's house prior to the murder. At that point, G gave Johnson a gun. Johnson then went to the laundromat with G and another "stake out" person. After barging into the laundromat, Johnson recalls that he "got nervous" and "the gun went off." Then he "just got confused" and tried "to shoot my way out of there." Johnson stated that G paid him "about $300 or $400" for the murder. Finally, Johnson agreed that he was not threatened or coerced to give the statement and that the statement was free and voluntary.

Additionally, Termain Tift testified that Johnson told him about shooting Sugar Momma at a washhouse. Tift also said that Johnson admitted getting paid for the murder. Other testimony was offered that no money was taken from the laundromat.

After trial, the jury convicted Johnson of first-degree murder. The jury then recommended the death penalty by a margin of nine to three. On December 13, 1991, the trial judge sentenced Johnson to death. The trial judge found the following five statutory aggravators: (1) the defendant was previously convicted of a felony involving the use of violence to the person; 4 (2) the defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons; 5 (3) the murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in the commission of a burglary; 6 (4) the murder was committed for pecuniary gain; 7 and (5) the murder was committed in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification. 8 The trial judge expressly considered, and thereafter rejected, the following two statutory mitigators: (1) the murder was committed while the defendant was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance; 9 and (2) the age of the defendant at the time of the murder. 10 Finally, the trial judge found that the fact that Johnson was a good friend and a caring family man was established by competent evidence. The trial judge treated this as a nonstatutory mitigating factor. He found, however, that this factor was outweighed "to the point of obliteration" by the aggravating circumstances.

This direct appeal ensues. Johnson raises six issues in this appeal. He claims that: (1) the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress; (2) the trial court erred in striking juror Williams for cause; (3) the trial court erred in denying a motion for mistrial based upon a Richardson 11 violation; (4) the trial court erred in denying a motion for mistrial based upon unauthorized note-taking by the jury; (5) the prosecution's closing argument was improper; and (6) the trial court erred in finding that Johnson created a great risk of death to many persons.

As his first issue, Johnson claims that his confession was not voluntary and therefore should have been suppressed. Specifically, he claims that his confession was involuntary for four reasons. He asserts that he was promised leniency (in the form of avoiding the electric chair) if he cooperated and confessed. He further argues that he was unduly influenced by the duration of his isolation and the lack of communication with his family. He also claims that he was physically abused and threatened by the law-enforcement officers. Finally, he argues that the trial judge failed to make specific findings of fact in his denial of the motion to suppress. In particular, the trial judge allegedly failed to make a specific finding of voluntariness.

It is well established that a confession cannot be obtained through direct or implied promises. In order for a confession to be voluntary, the totality of the circumstances must indicate that such confession is the result of a free and rational choice. Leon v. Wainwright, 734 F.2d 770, 772 (11th Cir.1984) It may not be obtained by either implied or direct promises. Bram v. United States, 168 U.S. 532, 542-3, 18 S.Ct. 183, 186-7, 42 L.Ed. 568 (1897); Harris v. Dugger, 874 F.2d 756, 761 (11th Cir.1989); Thomas v State, 456 So.2d 454, 458 (Fla.1984), post-conviction relief granted on other grounds, 546 So.2d 716 (Fla.1989); Brewer v. State, 386 So.2d 232, 235-6 (Fla.1980). In this case, though, we can find no support for Johnson's assertions outside of his own self-serving statements. Indeed, his current position is even inconsistent with his own prior statements. In particular, Johnson agreed to answer questions after being read his Miranda rights. He signed a Miranda form reading, in part, that "[t]his statement is signed of my own free will without any threats or promises having been made to me." At the conclusion of his sworn confession, Johnson agreed that the statement had been given "freely and voluntarily" and that he had not been "threatened or coerced." Further, we note that Johnson's booking photograph shows no signs of physical abuse. Moreover, he did not seek medical treatment for injuries received during these alleged "beatings." There is simply an absence of any extrinsic evidence to indicate that Johnson's confessions were the result of threats, duress, coercion, or promises.

Consequently, we must look to...

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