Wells v. State

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Florida
PartiesWILLIAM E. WELLS III, Appellant, v. STATE OF FLORIDA, Appellee.
Docket NumberSC2021-1001
Decision Date13 April 2023

An Appeal from the Circuit Court in and for Bradford County Mark W. Moseley, Judge Case No. 042019CF000706CFAXMX

Jessica J. Yeary, Public Defender, and Barbara J. Busharis Assistant Public Defender, Tallahassee, Florida, for Appellant

Ashley Moody, Attorney General, and Janine D. Robinson, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, for Appellee


William E. Wells III appeals his judgment of conviction of first-degree murder and sentence of death. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla Const. For the reasons given below, we affirm in all respects.


On July 5, 2019, Wells, aided by Leo Boatman, murdered fellow prison inmate, William Chapman. At the time, Wells was serving seven consecutive life sentences-six for first-degree murder and one for attempted premeditated murder.[1]

At least a month before Chapman's death, Wells and Boatman began planning the murder. As Wells would later explain, he hoped to receive the death penalty and be placed on death row where he anticipated better living conditions.

With this goal in mind, Wells decided to target Chapman, believing that Chapman intended to recruit him for sexual favors. In preparation for the murder, Wells and Boatman collected two ten-inch-long metal shanks, sharpened them over the course of several days, and ultimately hid them near the dayroom. Wells also crafted ligatures from his bed sheet and pillowcase to be used during the attack.

On the day of the murder, Wells packed his belongings so that authorities could easily collect them. Later, Wells, Boatman, Chapman, and several other inmates were ushered into the dayroom, which was equipped with a surveillance camera. About ten minutes before the attack, Boatman left the dayroom to walk to the bathroom and, upon his return, Wells did the same. Once Wells returned, Boatman approached Chapman, spoke to him, and the two walked to an area of the room in the camera's blind spot. Wells removed a ligature-which had been concealed in his clothing-and walked toward them.

Upon joining Boatman and Chapman, Wells wrapped the ligature around Chapman's neck and began choking him. As Chapman struggled to break free, Boatman started punching him. Anticipating that corrections officers would soon try to intervene, Boatman moved in front of the only door to the dayroom, blocked it with his foot, and brandished the two shanks. When corrections officers pushed on the door, Boatman shouted that he would kill them if they entered.

While Boatman was blocking the door, Wells dragged Chapman over to him. Struggling to breathe, Chapman pled for his life, begging: "Please don't kill me." Disregarding Chapman's pleas, Wells and Boatman continued the assault.

Boatman began stabbing Chapman in the eyes with the shanks. Eventually, the responding corrections officers pushed the door open enough to deploy a chemical agent into the dayroom. But the chemical agent had no effect on Wells or Boatman. At some point when the door was slightly ajar, Chapman managed to get his fingers in the gap between the door and the frame. But even with Chapman's efforts, the officers could not open the door.

As the brutal attack continued, Boatman handed Wells a shank, which Wells used to forcefully stab Chapman in his back. By this time, Chapman was offering no resistance and lying face down on the floor. Sensing that Chapman was still breathing, Wells urged Boatman to keep stabbing him. To buy them more time and prevent corrections officers from entering the dayroom, Wells tied the door handle to the nearest bench-which was bolted to the floor. With the door secured in this way, Wells and Boatman continued beating and stabbing Chapman without intervention. Toward the end of the twelve-minute assault, Boatman plunged a shank into Chapman's neck and stomped on it, doing so with such force that the shank went completely through Chapman's neck and bent under the pressure of being driven into the floor.

Eventually, Wells and Boatman ceased their attack and allowed a tactical team and corrections officers to enter the room. The officers apprehended Wells and Boatman and removed Chapman, still breathing, from the dayroom. Despite receiving medical care, Chapman died shortly after the attack due to the extensive injuries inflicted by Wells and Boatman.

Meanwhile, shortly after law enforcement apprehended Wells, he made several unsolicited statements. Referring to his "last murder," Wells criticized the jury for sparing his life by "not giving [him] the death sentence." Wells also joked about using Chapman's body "as a doorstop" to prevent the officers from intervening. While still discussing the attack, Wells bragged about how deep he inserted the shank into Chapman's body. Wells also acknowledged that he had, in fact, made plans to murder Chapman.

The day after the murder, law enforcement agents conducted a recorded interview of Wells. After the agents advised Wells of his Miranda[2] rights, he made multiple incriminating statements-giving the reasons he selected the victim and disclosing his plans and preparations for carrying out the murder.

Ultimately, the State indicted Wells on charges of premeditated first-degree murder and possession of a weapon by a state prisoner. Based on the charge of first-degree murder, the State filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty.

The day after the indictment, Wells filed a motion requesting to represent himself and another motion asking to waive a penaltyphase jury. Before ruling on these motions, the trial court appointed Dr. Harry Krop to perform a competency evaluation on Wells. After conducting that evaluation, Dr. Krop found that Wells was competent to stand trial.

At the arraignment, the court addressed Wells's motion to represent himself. The court underscored the benefits of using appointed counsel over proceeding pro se and also noted pitfalls associated with self-representation. Wells acknowledged the court's concerns but maintained that he wished to represent himself. The court then conducted a thorough Faretta[3] inquiry, and upon completion, granted Wells's motion for self-representation. At that same hearing, the court appointed regional counsel to function as Wells's standby counsel and accepted his plea to the weapons possession charge.

Wells, however, soon changed his mind and requested representation. The court granted that request. Then, two months later, Wells again decided to proceed pro se and requested that regional counsel be discharged. Following another Faretta inquiry, the court granted Wells's request.

After the Faretta inquiry, Wells informed the court that he wanted to plead guilty to the first-degree murder charge. After a lengthy colloquy with Wells and the prosecutor's presentation of a factual basis, the court accepted the guilty plea, finding it to be knowingly, freely, voluntarily, and intelligently given. Then, as he had done before, Wells expressed his intent to waive a penaltyphase jury and not present mitigating evidence during the bench penalty phase. Notwithstanding Wells's decision on mitigation, the court ordered that the mitigating evidence from Wells's prior capital case be made available. According to the court, its intent was to review and take notice of that mitigating evidence during the forthcoming penalty phase.

Several months later, while Wells was still representing himself, standby counsel moved to continue. Standby counsel asserted that they had not had an opportunity to undertake the necessary preparations should they be reappointed. Standby counsel did not claim that the motion was filed at Wells's direction or with his consent. The court denied the motion without prejudice.

Ultimately, the penalty phase began nine months after the charges were filed. At the outset, Wells reiterated that he did not want counsel appointed or a jury impaneled. And he again stated that he would not present any mitigating evidence.

During the State's case, it introduced several exhibits, including: (1) surveillance videos of Chapman's murder, (2) a video of Wells's initial comments, (3) a recording of Wells's interview with law enforcement agents, and (4) the medical examiner's report showing Chapman's manner and cause of death.[4] The State also called four witnesses. One witness, a special agent, testified about interviewing Wells after the murder. The agent explained that, after receiving the Miranda warning, Wells discussed his plans to commit the murder, emphasizing that preparations were made days in advance. According to Wells, those advanced preparations showed that the murder was clearly "cold, calculated, and premeditated." For its final witness, the State called Dr. William Hamilton, the medical examiner who autopsied Chapman.

Just prior to Dr. Hamilton taking the stand, Wells requested the appointment of regional counsel. The court granted that request. Given the sudden change of circumstances, counsel immediately moved for a continuance. The court granted the motion but allowed the State to proceed with Dr. Hamilton's examination before continuing the penalty phase. The court gave regional counsel the option to cross-examine Dr. Hamilton that day, but noted that counsel would be permitted to again cross-examine the witness when the penalty phase resumed. The court also notified regional counsel that the mitigation specialist who investigated and prepared mitigating evidence for Wells's prior death-penalty case was available.

Seven months later, regional counsel moved to continue, requesting more time to prepare. The trial court denied the request. Five days before...

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