Thomas v. State, 61170

Decision Date13 September 1984
Docket NumberNo. 61170,61170
Citation456 So.2d 454
PartiesEdward Clifford THOMAS, Appellant, v. STATE of Florida, Appellee.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

Sheldon Golding, Sp. Public Defender, Fort Lauderdale, for appellant.

Jim Smith, Atty. Gen. and Sharon Lee Stedman, Asst. Atty. Gen., West Palm Beach, for appellee.

BOYD, Chief Justice.

This cause is before the Court on appeal from a judgment of conviction for two counts of murder in the first degree. For one of the counts of first-degree murder the trial court sentenced appellant to death. Appellant is entitled to appeal both convictions and the sentence of death, and this Court has jurisdiction. Art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla.Const.

Appellant Edward Clifford Thomas stands convicted of the premeditated murders of James Walsworth, an elementary school principal, and Russell Bettis. On the night of December 2, 1980, James Walsworth's body was found lying beside his car in a parking lot. He had been stabbed in the chest. The next morning Russell Bettis was discovered lying unconscious in an alley near the parking lot. Bettis had been severely beaten. He never regained consciousness and died several months later. Appellant was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Walsworth and to death for the murder of Bettis. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the convictions and the sentence of death.

A few days after the discovery of the Walsworth homicide, the police received a call from a citizen informant who said that appellant Thomas had killed the school principal and attacked Bettis, and told the police where Thomas worked. On December 8, 1980, several detectives went to appellant's place of work and asked him to accompany them to their offices for questioning. Appellant agreed and on the way to the police station said, "I know what this is all about. I beat up Russell, but I didn't kill the principal." At police headquarters, the officers advised appellant of his constitutional rights and appellant signed a form giving his consent to be questioned.

At first appellant told the police that he had been in a fight with Bettis several weeks prior to when the injured Bettis was found. Then he admitted giving Bettis a beating on the night of December 2. The officers had him repeat his statement and they recorded it on tape. After a short interval, the officers again advised appellant of his rights and he again agreed to be questioned. This time they asked him about the murder of Walsworth. At first appellant denied knowing anything about it, but later admitted that he killed Walsworth. After questioning appellant about the details, the police took the second confession in tape-recorded form.

Appellant was initially charged with first-degree murder for the killing of Walsworth and the attempted murder of Bettis. After Bettis died, however, the latter charge was amended so as to charge a second count of murder in the first degree. In addition to his confessions, the evidence at trial included the testimony of two other persons--appellant's father and the citizen who initially notified the police--who testified to incriminating admissions on the part of the appellant. The jury found appellant guilty of first-degree murder on both counts.

After the sentencing hearing, the jury recommended life sentences for both murders. The judge followed the recommendation with regard to the murder of Walsworth but, finding additional aggravating circumstances associated with the subsequent murder of Bettis, imposed a sentence of death for the second murder.

Appellant contends that there is insufficient evidence to support his conviction for the premeditated murder of Russell Bettis; that the trial court erred in refusing to exclude appellant's confessions from evidence; that the trial court erred in allowing testimony about blood found on appellant's shirt; and that the trial judge made an improper and prejudicial comment concerning a defense witness. Appellant also contends that the sentence of death is improper and that the death penalty law is unconstitutional.

The evidence showed that Bettis was beaten, kicked, or bludgeoned so severely that his skull was fractured in many places. He was rendered unconscious and was not treated until he was discovered the next day. He remained comatose and over the next several months was treated by brain surgeons in a futile effort to save his life. On May 16, 1981, he died without ever having regained consciousness. Appellant contends that he may not be found guilty of premeditated murder since Bettis was still alive when appellant left him in the alley after beating him. Appellant's contention is without merit. The evidence showed the nature of the injuries intentionally inflicted on Bettis. Whether the jury believed that appellant used a weapon or only his fists and feet, the evidence is clear in either event that appellant attacked Bettis with lethal force. The wounds inflicted resulted in death. Thus it was proper for the jury to presume that appellant intended the consequences of his actions. Buford v. State, 403 So.2d 943 (Fla.1981), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1164, 102 S.Ct. 1039, 71 L.Ed.2d 320 (1982); Rhodes v. State, 104 Fla. 520, 140 So. 309 (1932). Moreover, the detectives who testified concerning appellant's statements said that appellant told them he had killed Bettis because Bettis had seen him kill Walsworth. If the jury believed this testimony, it could have concluded that appellant not only intended to kill Bettis but thought he had done so months before Bettis died.

Appellant contends that the trial judge should have excluded appellant's statements to police as the product of coercion, confusion, and intoxication. A confession that is obtained by coercion may not be used in evidence. Brewer v. State, 386 So.2d 232 (Fla.1980). Techniques calculated to exert improper influence, to trick, or to delude the suspect as to his true position will also result in the exclusion of self-incriminating statements thereby obtained. Blackburn v. Alabama, 361 U.S. 199, 80 S.Ct. 274, 4 L.Ed.2d 242 (1960); Bram v. United States, 168 U.S. 532, 18 S.Ct. 183, 42 L.Ed. 568 (1897); Frazier v. State, 107 So.2d 16 (Fla.1958); Harrison v. State, 152 Fla. 86, 12 So.2d 307 (1943). To render a confession inadmissible, however, the delusion or confusion must be visited upon the suspect by his interrogators; if it originates from the suspect's own apprehension, mental state, or lack of factual knowledge, it will not require suppression. See State v. Caballero, 396 So.2d 1210 (Fla. 3d DCA 1981); Ebert v. State, 140 So.2d 63 (Fla. 2d DCA 1962). Here there was no evidence of threats, promises, or other improper influences.

Appellant also says that because of his youth and his state of intoxication when questioned, he was incapable of validly waiving his rights and knowingly making voluntary incriminating statements. However, "this Court has recognized that youthful age, although a factor to be considered in determining the voluntariness of a statement, will not render inadmissible a confession which is shown to have been made voluntarily. State v. Francois, 197 So.2d 492 (Fla.1967)." Ross v. State, 386 So.2d 1191, 1195 (Fla.1980). Regarding intoxication, at the suppression hearing appellant and another witness testified that appellant got drunk before he was taken in for questioning. The detectives who questioned appellant testified that he did not appear intoxicated, that they advised him of his rights, that he intelligently waived those rights, and that he voluntarily gave the statements. The mere fact that a suspect was under the influence of alcohol when questioned does not render his statements inadmissible as involuntary. "The rule of law seems to be well settled that the drunken condition of an accused when making a confession, unless such drunkenness goes to the extent of mania, does not affect the admissibility in evidence of such confession, but may affect its weight and credibility with the jury." Lindsey v. State, 66 Fla. 341, 343, 63 So. 832, 833 (1913). See generally Deconingh v. State, 433 So.2d 501 (Fla.1983); Reddish v. State, 167 So.2d 858 (Fla.1964); McCray v. State, 289 So.2d 765 (Fla. 3d DCA 1974). The trial judge found that the state had carried its burden of showing that appellant's confessions were freely and voluntarily given. Appellant has failed to show that the trial judge's determination was erroneous.

Appellant contends that it was error to admit his slightly bloodstained shirt into evidence because there was nothing to logically relate it to the murders. We find this position to be without merit. There was evidence that appellant wore the shirt on the night of the murder of Walsworth. The shirt was properly determined to be relevant and its probative value was for the jury to consider. The defense was allowed to bring out evidence of a study showing that a large portion of randomly selected clothing sent to laundries contains some blood.

Appellant contends that the trial judge uttered an improper and prejudicial remark about one of the defense witnesses within the hearing of the jury. The defense witness in question was an admitted homosexual prostitute whose testimony about typical amounts paid for sexual services of male prostitutes was intended to undermine the state's evidence pertaining to the motive for the killing of one of the victims. After the witness had testified, the judge said, "Get him out of here." Defense counsel immediately approached the bench, objected, and moved for a mistrial. The judge denied the motion on the ground that the tone and expression of the remark were such that it was not likely to have been interpreted as a comment on the credibility of the witness. The judge also instructed the jury to disregard his remark and not to interpret it as reflecting on the character or credibility of the witness. We conclude that the curative instruction was sufficient to correct any negative inference...

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