Smithers v. Sec'y, Case No.8:09-cv-2200-T-17EAJ

CourtUnited States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
Docket NumberCase No.8:09-cv-2200-T-17EAJ
Decision Date15 June 2011


Case No.8:09-cv-2200-T-17EAJ


Dated: June 15, 2011



This cause is before the Court on Samuel L. Smithers' timely-filed 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition for writ of habeas corpus. Smithers, a Florida prisoner sentenced to death, challenges his convictions and sentences entered by the Circuit Court for the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit, Hillsborough County, Florida. A review of the record demonstrates that, for the reasons below, the petition must be denied.


In its opinion affirming Smithers' convictions and death sentences, the Florida Supreme Court set forth the salient facts as follows:

[I]n 1995, Sam Smithers agreed to mow the grass at a vacant Plant City house owned by Marion Whitehurst. Whitehurst and Smithers attended the same church. Whitehurst was attempting to sell the house and therefore needed the landscape to be maintained by Smithers. There are three ponds surrounding the house and the twenty-seven acre property is enclosed by a fence with a gate at the front. Whitehurst gave Smithers a key to the gate but not the house.

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In 1996, Smithers and Whitehurst renewed their agreement. Smithers mowed the lawn the week of May 20 and Whitehurst paid Smithers on May 26. At approximately 7 p.m. on May 28, Whitehurst decided to stop by the property. The gate was locked when she arrived, but after opening the gate and driving to the house, Whitehurst found Smithers' truck parked just outside the carport. Smithers was sitting in the carport cleaning an axe. Smithers told Whitehurst that he had returned to the property to cut down some tree limbs. During the conversation, Whitehurst noticed a pool of blood in the carport. Smithers told her that someone must have come by and killed a small animal. He assured her that he would clean up the mess.
Although Whitehurst left the house, she was bothered by the pool of blood, and therefore she contacted the Sheriff's Department. Later that night, Deputy Skolnik met Whitehurst at the property. The pool of blood had been cleaned up, but the deputy noticed what appeared to be drag marks in the grass leading towards one of the ponds. The deputy followed the drag marks down to the pond and discovered a dead female body floating in the water. The woman was later identified as Cristy Cowan. A dive team subsequently discovered a second dead female body in another part of the pond. She was later identified as Denise Roach.
A search of the Whitehurst house revealed a condom wrapper in one of the bedrooms and a semen stain on the carpet. Test results established that Cowan could not have contributed to this stain, but Roach and Smithers could not be excluded. A fingerprint taken from the kitchen was identified as having been made by Smithers. Roach's DNA was consistent with a blood stain found in the carport. Shoe prints by the pond matched the shoes found in Smithers' home. Also, Smithers and Cowan were seen on a convenience store videotape about an hour before Whitehurst arrived at the property on May 26. The videotape depicted Smithers and Cowan entering and leaving the store together.
On the night of May 26, two detectives went to Smithers' home and Smithers agreed to accompany them to the Sheriff's Office for an interview. Smithers requested that his wife join them. Smithers was questioned for almost three hours. Detective Flair read Smithers his Miranda rights and Smithers waived his rights. At the end of the interview, Smithers agreed to return the next morning and take a polygraph test.
Upon returning the following morning, Smithers was given a written version of his Miranda rights. Smithers signed a waiver of rights form and proceeded to take the polygraph test. Afterwards, Detective Metzgar explained to Smithers that the polygraph test indicated that he was not telling the truth

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and Smithers responded by making some incriminating statements. Metzgar called Detectives Flair and Blake into the room and Flair and Blake continued the interview. Smithers again insisted that his wife be present during the interview. Smithers subsequently admitted that he killed Cristy Cowan and Denise Roach.
Smithers told the detectives the following version of events regarding the Cowan murder. Smithers was coming home from work when he spotted a car on the side of the road. He stopped to assist the driver (Cowan) and drove her to a convenience store. Once back in his truck, Cowan demanded money and threatened to accuse him of rape if he did not give her money. Smithers drove Cowan to the Whitehurst property. Smithers gave Cowan all the money that he had but she still was not satisfied and she threw a drink at him. In response, he picked up an axe and struck Cowan in the head. She fell down unconscious and he dragged her to the pond. He returned to the carport to rinse off the axe when Whitehurst arrived. During the time that Whitehurst was there, he could hear Cowan making noises from the pond (Whitehurst testified that she never heard any sounds). When Whitehurst left, he went back to the pond and hit Cowan in the head "to shut her up." He also threw some tree limbs at her.
Later in the interview, Smithers explained to the detectives his involvement with the Roach murder. On May 7, Smithers was at the Whitehurst property mowing the lawn when Roach approached him. Roach told him that she had permission to be on the property. When Smithers returned to the Whitehurst property on May 13, Roach was still there. Smithers asked her to leave and she refused. Roach then hit Smithers on the arm and Smithers punched Roach in the face. Smithers said that Roach picked up a planter in the carport and threw it at Smithers' truck, causing a dent. Smithers shoved Roach against the wall, causing a piece of wood to fall down from a shelf and hit her on the head. Roach fell to the ground unconscious. Smithers left the property, but he returned the next day and dragged her body to the pond. He cleaned up the blood with mop and a bucket of water.
At the conclusion of the interview, Smithers was arrested and subsequently charged with two counts of murder. Prior to trial, the trial court denied Smithers' motion to sever the two charges and Smithers' motion to suppress his confession.
At trial, the medical examiner testified that at the time Cowan's body was discovered, she had not been dead for more than a couple of hours. There was a foam cone around her mouth which suggested that she might have drowned. Cowan had an injury to her eye, a laceration under her lip, a

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blunt impact injury to her jaw, a chop wound on the top of her head which penetrated her brain, and a chop wound behind her ear. She also had injuries consistent with manual strangulation. The medical examiner stated that death was caused by strangulation combined with the chop wounds.
Regarding Roach, the medical examiner testified that the body had been in the pond seven to ten days and was therefore very decomposed. There were two slits in Roach's clothing which were caused by a sharp instrument. Her face and skull were fractured. There were also sixteen puncture wounds to her skull, several of which penetrated the skull. Finally, she had injuries consistent with manual strangulation (the hyoid bone was fractured). The medical examiner stated that death was caused by the combined effects of strangulation, stab wounds, and blunt impact to the head.
The State presented the testimony of several witnesses who stated that both Cowan and Roach were prostitutes and worked in the same location (the Luxury Motel area). Prostitute Bonnie Kruse testified that she had previously "dated" Smithers at the Luxury Motel. Smithers offered Kruse extra money to go with him to Seffner, but she refused. Another prostitute testified that on the day Cowan disappeared, she gave her a condom. This condom was similar to the condom wrapper found inside the Whitehurst property.
Smithers testified during the guilt phase. His story at trial was different from the story he initially told the detectives. Smithers said that he lied to the detectives because he was scared that his family would be harmed if he told the truth. Smithers told the jury that the incident actually began months earlier when he was a deacon at his church. A girl named Mimi was on probation and was fulfilling her community service requirement at the church. Smithers was Mimi's supervisor. Mimi, however, could not complete her hours and she therefore offered to have sex with Smithers if he would alter her records. He agreed. Weeks later, Smithers was approached by a man who was aware that Smithers was a caretaker at the Whitehurst property. Smithers did not know the man or his name (hereinafter Mr. X). Mr. X asked Smithers if he could use the property for a drug transaction. Mr. X had a picture of Smithers and Mimi. Mr. X said he would go public with the picture if Smithers did not cooperate. Smithers agreed to let Mr. X use the property. On two separate occasions, Mr. X contacted Smithers and asked Smithers to meet him at the property to unlock the gate. Several people were present during the first visit to the property, including Denise Roach. Roach got into an argument with Mr. X and Mr. X hit Roach in the head with a hatchet. Smithers claimed that he just stood and watched. Mr. X then approached Smithers and hit him with a tire tool. He ordered Smithers to drag Roach's body to the pond. Mr. X told Smithers that he would kill his family if he did not keep quiet. A week and a half later, Mr. X

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