Johnston v. State

Decision Date16 October 2003
Docket NumberNo. SC01-1914.,SC01-1914.
Citation863 So.2d 271
PartiesRay Lamar JOHNSTON, Appellant, v. STATE of Florida, Appellee.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

James Marion Moorman, Public Defender, and Steven L. Bolotin, Assistant Public Defender, Tenth Judicial Circuit, Bartow, FL, for Appellant.

Charles J. Crist, Jr., Attorney General, and Kimberly Nolen Hopkins, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, FL, for Appellee.


Ray Lamar Johnston appeals his conviction of first-degree murder and sentence of death. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the conviction and sentence.


On either February 6 or 7, 1997, Janice Nugent, a forty-seven-year-old divorced woman, was strangled to death in her Tampa home by Ray Lamar Johnston. Nugent's body was discovered by her son-in law, John McCarthy, at about 11 p.m. on Friday, February 7, 1997. When McCarthy arrived at Nugent's house, he noticed the side door to the house was ajar and keys were still in the door lock. Nugent's car was still in the carport. McCarthy entered the house and discovered Nugent's body, wrapped in a bed comforter and submerged in the bathtub. Nugent was wearing only panties and a brassiere.

The medical examiner, Dr. Julia Martin, testified that the time of Nugent's death was between 1 a.m. on Thursday, February 6, and 1 a.m. on Friday, February 7. Dr. Martin determined that the cause of death was manual strangulation, and that Nugent was murdered before she was submerged in the bathtub. There was extensive bruising to Nugent's neck and shoulder area. Dr. Martin concluded that the strangulation in this case was not by constant, continuous compression, but rather was "more of a manual throttling ... meaning it was more pressure, release, pressure, release. There was some fighting activity."1 Defensive bruising on Nugent's arms and hands and defensive fingernail injuries on her nose indicated that Nugent struggled with her assailant and attempted to pull the assailant's hands off her face.

Nugent sustained three to five blunt impact "pattern type injuries" on her buttocks and hips. Dr. Martin testified that within a reasonable medical probability, one or more of the patterned injuries on Nugent's buttocks were made by a belt. The other pattern type injuries could have been made by a belt or some other implement, possibly a vacuum cleaner hose. The belt that caused the injuries was never recovered.

Kelli McCarthy, Nugent's daughter, testified that Nugent retained all of her used answering machine tapes and stored them in a bureau drawer in her bedroom. The answering machine tapes and a portable phone with caller ID were not found. There were no signs of forced entry and no signs of a struggle in any room other than the master bedroom. In the master bedroom a lamp on a bedside table had been broken and partially overturned. Nugent's massage table was open in the living room and jars of cocoa butter and massage oil were found on a nearby piece of furniture. McCarthy testified that Nugent was a massage therapist and would bring the table into the living room to give massages. McCarthy described Nugent as a creature of habit and a "neat freak" and testified that Nugent would mop her kitchen floor every week. It would be very uncharacteristic of her to leave a cup unwashed for three or four weeks. She also testified that Nugent habitually bathed twice a day. There was only one bathtub in the house.

The last person to see Nugent alive, other than Johnston, was Ron Pliego. Pliego arrived at Nugent's house on Wednesday, February 5, 1997, around midnight and left at around 1 a.m. on Thursday morning. Pliego did not eat or drink anything while at Nugent's house and had some form of sexual encounter2 with Nugent. Pliego could not remember whether the massage table was in Nugent's living room when he left. Pliego was eliminated as a suspect in the Nugent murder after he provided police with his fingerprints and DNA.

Nugent, Johnston, and Frances Aberle, an acquaintance of Nugent who had dated Johnston, were regulars at a bar named "Malio's." A short time before the murder, Aberle told Johnston that she would no longer go to Malio's with him because she was afraid Nugent would retaliate against her for being with Johnston. Several days after the murder, Aberle and Johnston spoke about the murder and Aberle said, "I just can't understand someone doing that. Why? No matter what somebody did, why somebody would do that." Ray agreed with her and then said, "Well, now there's no reason you can't go to Malio's with me."

Johnston's fingerprints were found on the bottom of a plastic cup under the kitchen table and on the cold water knob of the bathtub, near Nugent's body. Shoe tracks consistent with shoes recovered from a search of Johnston's apartment were found on Nugent's kitchen floor. The State could not prove that the shoe tracks came from the exact shoes owned by Johnston, but did establish that the tracks were consistent with the tracks made by Johnston's shoes. DNA evidence matching Johnston's DNA profile was found on a bed sheet in Nugent's master bedroom. The odds of another person matching Johnston's DNA profile are one in 279 trillion. The mixture stain from which the DNA evidence was found was consistent with blood, saliva, or sweat, but it was not consistent with semen. No evidence of sexual battery was introduced at trial.

Detectives Noblitt and Stanton interviewed Johnston three times before the Nugent trial. In the first interview, Johnston told the detectives that he knew Nugent, and that he met her at Malio's. He had danced with her a few times, and they went out on one dinner date several weeks before Valentine's Day. After the date, they went back to Nugent's house.3 Nugent took him through her kitchen to a locked room at the rear of the house. Nugent began to act strangely and Johnston left the house. Johnston said he never went out with Janice again; he was in the house for no more than half an hour that night; he and Janice did not have sex; and they did not have a fight. Johnston denied killing Nugent.

The second interview took place six days later. By that time, the detectives had received information that Johnston's fingerprint was found on the shower knob in Nugent's bathroom. Detective Noblitt asked Johnston to go back over the events of his dinner date with Nugent, and Johnston reiterated the story he gave in the first interview. Noblitt then said, "Your fingerprint is in a place very near where Ms. Nugent's body is." Noblitt did not indicate exactly where the fingerprint was found. Johnston said he was only in Nugent's house once and only went in the rooms he had previously mentioned; then Johnston stopped and said "Wait a minute, I may have gone in the computer room." Noblitt countered, "That won't explain the fingerprint," and told Johnston he did not believe he was telling him the truth. Noblitt asked Johnston if he knew where the body was found. At first Johnston said no, then he said, "Oh, I think it was found in the bathroom." Asked how he knew that, Johnston said he had read it in the newspaper. A short time later, Johnston mentioned to the detectives that he has occasional blackouts and seizures. Johnston told the detectives, "Sometimes I get to doing something and doing it and doing it and when it's over I can't remember what I've done." Detective Stanton asked Johnston, "Is that what happened with you and Janice?" and Johnston said, "No, I did not kill Janice."

Detective Noblitt insisted that "[s]omething happened. Your fingerprints are in a place where I know you were there the night she was killed." Johnston stopped for a second and said, "I went to the bathroom." Noblitt took that as meaning that he went in to urinate, and he insisted to Johnston that he did not believe him and the fingerprint did not get there that way. Johnston thought about it for a few minutes and then said, "Okay, I'm going to tell you the truth." He then told the detectives that after he and Nugent returned to her house, they had a conversation about ghosts, which Nugent believed lived in her house. Nugent offered him a massage and Johnston accepted. Johnston took off his clothes and got on the massage table. Nugent heated some massage oil, and when she poured it on him it burned his buttocks and the back of his legs. He jumped up and ran into the shower, washed himself off, and fled Nugent's house in his underwear. Johnston told Noblitt that he was scared and that is why he did not mention these facts during the first interview.

The third interview with Johnston took place on September 2, 1997. By that time, the detectives had received DNA test results indicating that Johnston's bodily fluid was found on a sheet in Nugent's master bedroom. The detectives advised Johnston of his constitutional rights, as they had done in the previous interviews, and told him they wanted to talk more about Nugent's homicide. Noblitt testified:

I told him that we executed our search warrant; told him we had only taken a few things; that most of his property was still there, and had some small talk about who was going to pick up whatever remaining property he had. And Mr. Johnston sat there and looked at myself and Detective Stanton and said, "I think I have a problem."

Johnston then told the detectives that he had another person named Dwight living inside of him. Johnston said that Dwight was "very mean" and "I got to be cautious." Noblitt testified that Johnston "sat and put his fists together and clinched his fists real tight with his knuckles almost turning white and leaned back in his chair and kind of closed his eyes ... and he said `You've got to see him man.'" During the same interview Johnston denied that "Dwight" killed Nugent.

The State filed a motion to rely upon Williams4 rule evidence of Johnston's prior first-degree murder conviction. After two hearings on the...

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