Simmons v. State

Decision Date11 May 2006
Docket NumberNo. SC04-19.,SC04-19.
Citation934 So.2d 1100
PartiesEric SIMMONS, Appellant, v. STATE of Florida, Appellee.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

Janice C. Orr, Eustis, FL, for Appellant.

Charles J. Crist, Jr., Attorney General, Tallahassee, FL, Stephen D. Ake and Scott A. Browne, Assistant Attorney Generals, Tampa, FL, for Appellee.

PER CURIAM.

We have on appeal a judgment of conviction of kidnapping, sexual battery using force likely to cause serious injury, and first-degree murder of Deborah Tressler, and a sentence of death for the murder conviction. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const. For the reasons stated herein, we affirm the convictions and sentence.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The charges against appellant, Eric Simmons, resulted from the kidnapping, sexual battery, and stabbing and beating of Deborah Tressler, who was found dead in a wooded area in Sorrento, Florida. Simmons was tried and found guilty of kidnapping, sexual battery using force likely to cause serious injury, and first-degree murder. The jury unanimously recommended death as the penalty for the murder. The trial court sentenced Simmons to death on the charge of first-degree murder and life in prison for each of the kidnapping and sexual battery charges respectively.1

Prosecution Evidence

The evidence presented at trial indicated that on December 3, 2001, at approximately 11:30 a.m., John Conley, a Lake County Sheriff's Office (LCSO) deputy, discovered the body of Tressler in a large wooded area commonly used for illegal dumping. The body was located some 270 feet from the main road. Crime scene technician Theodore Cushing took pictures of the body, performed a sketch of the area, and found five tire tracks near the body. The crime scene technicians took plaster cast impressions of the three tracks with the most detail for comparison purposes. Mr. Cushing noticed that the tire tracks indicated that a car made a three-point turn close to the body. All-terrain vehicle tracks were present closer to the body, but they appeared older and deteriorated.

The medical examiner, Dr. Sam Gulino, observed the victim and the surroundings at the scene on December 3, 2001, with the victim lying on her left side with her right arm over her face. Dr. Gulino estimated the time of death was twenty-four to forty-eight hours before the body was discovered.

Dr. Gulino performed an autopsy, which revealed numerous injuries. Tressler suffered some ten lacerations on her head, as well as numerous other lacerations and scrapes on her scalp and face.2 There was a very large fracture on the right side of her head, and her skull was broken into multiple small pieces that fell apart when the scalp was opened. Dr. Gulino opined that this injury and the injuries to her brain resulted in shock and ultimately Tressler's death. There was another fracture that extended along the base of the skull, resulting from a high-energy impact; bleeding around the brain; and bruises in the brain tissue where the fractured pieces of skull had cut the brain. There were numerous stab wounds on the neck, a long cut across the front and right portions of the neck, and other bruises and cuts. There was little bleeding from these injuries, indicating that the victim was already dead or in shock at the time of the injuries. The victim also suffered a stab wound in the right lower part of her abdomen that extended into her abdominal cavity and probably occurred after she received the head injury. There were also injuries to her anus with bruising on the right buttock extending into the anus, and the wall of the rectum was lacerated. These injuries were inflicted before death. Dr. Gulino opined that these injuries would be painful and not the result of consensual anal intercourse. The victim suffered numerous defensive wounds on her forearms and hands. There was also a t-shaped laceration on the scalp and an injury at the base of her right index finger that was patterned as if a specific type of object, like threads on a pipe, had caused it. Dr. Gulino opined that the attack did not occur at the exact spot where Tressler was found because of the lack of blood and disruption to the area, but stated that the position of Tressler's body was consistent with an attack occurring in that area.

On December 4, 2001, Robert Bedgood, a crime scene technician, collected evidence from Tressler's body during the autopsy.3 Dr. Jerry Hogsette testified that, based on the temperature in the area of Tressler's body and the development of the insect larvae taken from Tressler's body, Tressler had been killed between midnight on December 1, 2001, and early Sunday morning, December 2, 2001.4

After identifying the body as Tressler's, crime scene technicians went to the trailer where Tressler lived and the laundromat where she worked to conduct Luminol testing. They found Tressler's purse at the laundromat and located a birthday list containing the names of Simmons' relatives. There was no evidence of violence in either place.

Andrew Montz testified that late on the night of December 1, 2001, he was at the Circle K convenience store at the intersection of State Road 44 and County Road 437 in Lake County. Mr. Montz saw a white four-door car heading northbound on 437, stopping at the traffic light very slowly, when a woman opened the passenger door and screamed, "Somebody help me. Somebody please help me." The driver pulled the woman back into the car and ran the red light quickly. Mr. Montz stated that the woman was wearing a white T-shirt or pajama-type top. He was not able to see the driver and described the car as a Chevy Corsica/Ford Taurus-type car with a dent on the passenger side, black and silver trim on the door panel, and a flag hanging from the window. After viewing a videotape of a white 1991 Ford Taurus owned by Simmons a year later, Mr. Montz identified it as being the car he saw on December 1. Mr. Montz initially told lead Detective Stewart Perdue that the car had spoked rims, but after viewing spoked rims at an auto parts store, he concluded that the rims on the car he saw were not spoked.

Sherri Renfro testified that she was at the same Circle K as Montz between 11:30 and 11:40 p.m. with her sister-in-law's boyfriend, Shane Lolito. She also saw a white car slowly approach the red light, the passenger door open, and a woman yell for help while looking directly at Ms. Renfro. Ms. Renfro yelled at the driver to stop, but he did not, and Ms. Renfro got into her van and chased after the car. She traveled in excess of the speed limit, but was unable to get close to the car and eventually lost track of it. Ms. Renfro thought that the car was a Chevy Corsica, but admitted that she "[did not] really know [her] cars too well." She recalled that the car had a patriotic bumper sticker in the rear window and a flag hanging from the back passenger window. She testified that there was a large spotlight on the side of the Circle K building that illuminated the surrounding area well. Ms. Renfro subsequently identified Simmons' white Ford Taurus as the car she saw at the intersection and she recognized the interior, the bumper sticker, and the flag on the car. Ms. Renfro identified Tressler as the woman in the car when shown a photograph of her.

Jose Rodriguez testified that he knew Tressler from the laundromat, he often saw Simmons and Tressler together drinking, and he was familiar with Simmons' car. Mr. Rodriguez saw Simmons with Tressler at the laundromat on the night of December 1, 2001. When he arrived at the laundromat, he knocked on the glass window to get Simmons' attention and asked him to come outside. While Simmons was exiting, Mr. Rodriguez got Tressler's attention and asked if she was okay; she replied that she was. Mr. Rodriguez spoke with Simmons for a few minutes and then talked to his own girlfriend on the pay phone outside. When he finished, Simmons and Tressler were still inside the closed laundromat.

Mr. Rodriguez was arrested the next day on unrelated charges, and on December 5, 2001, police officers showed Mr. Rodriguez a photopack with about thirty-five pictures in it, but he was unable to identify any as Tressler's boyfriend. However, Mr. Rodriguez picked the picture that looked most like Simmons and he drew additional characteristics similar to those of Simmons. On December 7, Mr. Rodriguez positively identified a photograph of Simmons as Tressler's boyfriend.

Detective Perdue testified that he and other police officers went to Simmons' parents' home after confirming that Simmons owned a white 1991 Ford Taurus. Detective Perdue and Detective Kenneth Adams approached Simmons and asked him to walk to a group of trees so they could talk. There were some fifteen other police officers at the scene as well as a helicopter flying overhead. Simmons acknowledged that he knew Tressler was dead, and the detectives asked if Simmons would come to the sheriff's office to talk. Simmons consented, and the detectives transported him to the sheriff's office in the back of a police cruiser. The detectives handcuffed Simmons for their protection pursuant to their standard practice, and Simmons did not object. Detectives Perdue and Adams removed the handcuffs upon arrival at the office, and interviewed Simmons in a room equipped with audio and video capabilities, although the videotape was allowed to run out after two hours.

Simmons waived his Miranda5 rights and stated that he was friends with Tressler and had tried to help her improve her living conditions.6 Simmons explained to Detective Perdue that on December 1, 2001, he and Tressler had been watching the Florida-Tennessee football game at his apartment in Mount Dora. The reception was bad, so Tressler asked him to take her to the laundromat or her trailer so she could watch the game. He took her to the...

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