Salazar v. State

Decision Date10 July 2008
Docket NumberNo. SC06-1381.,SC06-1381.
Citation991 So.2d 364
PartiesNeil K. SALAZAR, Appellant, v. STATE of Florida, Appellee.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

Carey Haughwout, Public Defender, and Gary lee Caldwell, Assistant Public Defender, Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, West Palm Beach, FL, for Appellant.

Bill McCollum, Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, and Leslie T. Campbell, Assistant Attorney General, West Palm Beach, FL, for Appellee.

PER CURIAM.

Neil Salazar appeals from a judgment of conviction and sentence of death for the first-degree murder of Evelyn Nutter. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm Salazar's conviction and sentence.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In the mid-1990s, Ronze "June Bug" Cummings and his girlfriend, Evelyn "Jenny" Nutter, moved from Fort Lauderdale to Fort Drum. The couple lived in a house adjacent to an orange grove where Ronze worked as the foreman. While living in Fort Drum, Nutter gave birth to two children. The children were ages two and six at the time of the killing.

Neil Salazar was a friend of Ronze Cummings. The two previously worked together in Fort Lauderdale at Smurfit Recycling Plant. Around May to June of 2000, Salazar, his girlfriend Monica, and their young child came to live with Ronze and Nutter in Fort Drum. But after a few weeks, they moved out at Ronze's request.

Subsequently, on June 26, 2000, Julius Hatcher, an associate of Salazar's, visited the Miami home of his cousin, Fred Cummings.1 Neither Fred nor his girlfriend, Shirleen Baker, was home. Instead, Salazar answered the door. Salazar invited Hatcher in and told him he had something to show him under an upstairs bed. Hatcher went upstairs and looked under the bed, but saw nothing. When he turned around, Salazar confronted him, pointing a machine gun at him. Salazar accused Hatcher of being "too clean" and "a snitch" who was planning to turn him over to the FBI regarding his drug trafficking business. Salazar duct-taped Hatcher's arms and legs and shoved his head under the bed, where he remained for several hours. Subsequently, Fred and Baker arrived home, but they did nothing to help Hatcher. Several hours later, Salazar brought Hatcher outside and forced him into a green Buick which Baker had rented. Then, Baker drove north on Interstate 95 with Hatcher in the front seat and Salazar sitting behind Hatcher, holding the machine gun. When the trio passed through Pompano Beach, Salazar removed the duct tape that bound Hatcher.

Around 11 p.m., they arrived at the home of Ronze and Nutter in Fort Drum. Hatcher went with Salazar to the back door. Salazar twisted out the back porch light bulb and broke the lock on the back door. When they entered the house, Ronze and Nutter were sitting in the living room watching television with their two-year-old son.2 Salazar ordered the occupants to lie on the floor and had Hatcher bind their hands and feet with the duct tape he brought with him from Miami. For about fifteen to twenty minutes, Salazar ranted about how his business was falling apart and accused the couple of communicating with the FBI. Salazar said that before he left, "somebody die tonight." Salazar also threatened to kill Hatcher if he refused to cooperate with Salazar's orders. Next, Salazar told Hatcher to retrieve some plastic shopping bags from a kitchen cabinet and a steak knife from a kitchen drawer. Salazar directed Hatcher to place the bags on Ronze's and Nutter's heads. Hatcher placed the bags on their heads but also poked a hole in Ronze's bag so he could breathe. Although Hatcher told Ronze that he would poke a breathing hole in Nutter's bag, no such hole was found when her bag was later recovered from the crime scene. Salazar then told Hatcher to duct-tape the bottom of the bags around the victims' necks, and Hatcher complied. Hatcher also duct-taped Nutter's eyes and mouth near her nose. Then, Salazar instructed Hatcher to move Ronze and Nutter into separate bedrooms.

Finding that the victims had not yet suffocated, Salazar ordered Hatcher to cut their throats with the knife. Hatcher refused. Then, Salazar gave Hatcher a .38 caliber revolver and ordered him to hold a pillow over each victim's head and shoot through the pillow. Salazar first stood in the doorway to the room where Nutter was placed, holding the machine gun on Hatcher. Hatcher shot Nutter in the head through a pillow as ordered. He then moved to the room in which Ronze was placed and Salazar stood in the doorway with the machine gun. Hatcher told Ronze to play dead before shooting him in the head through a pillow as Ronze's two-year-old son sat beside him. Still alive, Ronze stood up. Salazar ordered Hatcher to shoot him again, and Hatcher complied. Although still alive, Ronze remained on the floor, pretending to be dead.

Then, Salazar gave Hatcher the keys to a white Buick which belonged to Ronze and Nutter and told Hatcher to follow him and Baker back to Miami. Salazar and Baker sped off without waiting for Hatcher, but Hatcher was able to catch up to them by following the taillights. Hatcher followed Salazar and Baker until they reached Interstate 95. Soon thereafter, Hatcher signaled that he was stopping to purchase gasoline. Later, Hatcher drove the car to Fred's house in Miami and spent the night in a motel.

After Salazar and Hatcher went outside, but prior to their departure, Ronze stood up, picked up his son, and checked on Nutter, finding her dead. Ronze then moved to the living room and looked out the window. He observed Salazar, Hatcher, and Baker standing near the vehicles. After the trio left the premises, Ronze attempted to call 911 from his home phone but found that the line was disconnected. Carrying his son, Ronze walked to the nearby orange grove office and called 911. Ronze told the 911 operator that three or four Jamaican men broke into his home, killed Nutter, and shot him.

Around 12:30 a.m., Deputies Joey Chapman and Javier Gonzalez of the Okeechobee County Sheriff's Department arrived at the home. They spotted Ronze in his pickup truck and followed him to the house. When they approached Ronze, he appeared nervous and was bleeding profusely from his face. A torn bag hung around his neck, and pieces of duct tape clung to his wrists, feet, and arms. Ronze's two-year-old son was with him. Ronze informed the deputies that Nutter, whom he referred to as his wife, had been killed. When the deputies asked who the perpetrator was, Ronze told them that "Neil" did it. Ronze was subsequently transported by helicopter to Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne, Florida.

Detective T.J. Brock of the Okeechobee County Sheriff's Office obtained sworn statements from Ronze while he was in the hospital and upon his release. During both interviews, Ronze identified "Neil" as the perpetrator. Ronze told Brock that he had worked with Neil at a recycling plant when he lived in Fort Lauderdale and that Neil had come to live with him in the weeks prior to the crimes. Brock presented Ronze with several photographic lineups, but Salazar's photograph was not among those presented. To assist Brock, Ronze retrieved a videotape from his home which depicted Salazar, Monica, Ronze, Nutter, and their children at the beach during the time period that they lived together. Ronze informed Brock that Neil was not the actual shooter but ordered another man to carry out the killing.

About one week after Ronze was released from the hospital, Hatcher went to the Miami-Dade Police Department and gave a statement regarding the shooting. During a July 5, 2000, taped interview with Detective Brock, Hatcher confessed to the crimes. His confession was largely consistent with Ronze's description of the events surrounding Nutter's death.

On July 19, 2000, Hatcher and Salazar were charged by indictment with: (1) the first-degree murder of Evelyn Nutter; (2) the attempted first-degree murder of Ronze Cummings; (3) burglary of a dwelling while armed; and (4) theft of a motor vehicle. Hatcher's trial was postponed when he agreed to testify against Salazar in exchange for the State's promise not to seek the death penalty in his case.

Salazar's trial commenced on March 6, 2006. During the State's case, Dr. Frederick Hobin, the medical examiner who performed Nutter's autopsy, testified that Nutter died as the result of "multiple episodes of violence," the more lethal of which was the bullet injury to her head. According to Dr. Hobin, had Nutter not been shot, she would have certainly died from asphyxiation as a result of the bag over her head and the duct tape on her face. Following the State's case, the defense rested without presenting any evidence or witnesses.

On March 9, 2006, the jury returned guilty verdicts with special interrogatories, convicting Salazar of: (1) the first-degree murder of Evelyn Nutter while carrying, displaying, or using a firearm under both the premeditated and felony murder theories; (2) the attempted first-degree murder of Ronze Cummings; (3) burglary during which an assault was committed; and (4) theft of a motor vehicle. After the penalty phase, the jury unanimously recommended death. Finding four aggravators,3 no statutory mitigators, and six nonstatutory mitigators,4 the trial court followed the jury's recommendation and sentenced Salazar to death.

DISCUSSION

On appeal, Salazar raises five issues: (1) whether the trial court erred in denying Salazar's motion for a mistrial based on improper prosecutorial comments during guilt-phase final arguments; (2) whether the trial court erred in allowing the State to present improper self-bolstering witness testimony; (3) whether the trial court erred in finding the cold, calculated, and premeditated (CCP) aggravator; (4) whether the trial court erred in allowing the State to argue during penalty phase closing arguments that the victims were terrorized; and (5) whether...

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