Wheeler v. State

Decision Date29 January 2009
Docket NumberNo. SC06-2323.,SC06-2323.
Citation4 So.3d 599
PartiesJason L. WHEELER, Appellant/Cross-Appellee, v. STATE of Florida, Appellee/Cross-Appellant.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

James S. Purdy, Public Defender, and James R. Wulchak, Chief, Assistant Public Defender, Seventh Judicial Circuit, Daytona Beach, FL, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

Bill McCollum, Attorney General, Tallahassee, FL, and Kenneth S. Nunnelley, Assistant Attorney General, Daytona Beach, FL, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

PER CURIAM.

Jason Wheeler appeals his conviction for first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and aggravated battery involving three Lake County deputy sheriffs. Wheeler was convicted of the February 9, 2005, premeditated murder of Deputy Wayne Koester and the contemporaneous attempted first-degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm of deputies Thomas McKane and William Crotty. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm Wheeler's convictions and sentences.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
The Guilt Phase

On the morning of February 9, 2005, Lake County deputies Wayne Koester, William Crotty, and Thomas McKane responded to a 911 call in a rural area of Lake County. The deputies were in uniform, each driving a marked patrol car. Upon arrival, Deputy Crotty observed Sara Heckerman with facial bruises and a gash on her head.1 Heckerman lived with Wheeler in a travel trailer on the property. After observing Heckerman, Deputy Crotty made a decision to arrest Wheeler and Heckerman gave the deputies permission to look for Wheeler on the property. When Wheeler was not immediately located, the deputies called in a K-9 unit and a helicopter to assist in the search.

As deputies McKane and Koester began to put up crime scene tape near the travel trailer, Deputy McKane heard the sound of a shell being racked into the chamber of a shotgun. He testified that he turned and saw a blast coming out of the end of a shotgun pointed at himself and Deputy Koester. Deputy McKane heard more shots being fired and then saw Deputy Crotty taking cover at the back of one of the three patrol cars. Deputy McKane saw the shooter, identified by Deputy Crotty as Wheeler, walking along the side of the patrol car and firing over the car toward where Deputy Crotty had taken cover.

Deputy Crotty testified that he was talking with Heckerman next to his patrol car when he heard three shots. As he stood by the passenger side of the patrol car, he saw Deputy Koester running up the driveway, bleeding from what looked like bird-shot wounds to his face. Deputy Crotty then saw Wheeler, whom he identified in court, chasing Deputy Koester with a shotgun pointed at Deputy Koester's back. Wheeler turned the shotgun on Deputy Crotty, wounding him in the leg. Deputy Crotty fired at Wheeler and Wheeler ran off into the woods. Deputy Crotty reported to dispatch that the shooter "keeps coming out of the woods approaching our position and shooting. One officer down, I've been shot."

Wheeler then came back out of the woods continuing to shoot at Deputy Crotty. At that point, Deputy Crotty asked Wheeler what he was doing and Wheeler said, "I'm going to fucking kill you, man." As Wheeler ran back into the woods, Deputy Crotty fired in Wheeler's direction, hitting Wheeler in the buttocks area. Deputy McKane, who had armed himself with a shotgun, was also engaged in the gun battle with Wheeler, who returned fire, injuring Deputy McKane's leg, hand, arm, shoulder and lip.

The search for Wheeler continued for several more hours with both a helicopter and tracking dogs. Another officer eventually located Wheeler lying on the ground in a densely-wooded area near a lake. Upon being detected, Wheeler stood up and screamed several times for the officer to kill him and then appeared to go for a weapon. In response, the officer then fired shots at Wheeler, which resulted in Wheeler's permanent paralysis. Wheeler had a speaker wire wrapped around his neck and reported to another officer that he had tried to kill himself. A shotgun, which later proved to be the murder weapon, was found nearby.

Deputy Koester died as a result of a shotgun blast he received from Wheeler. He was first hit in different areas of his body with nonfatal shots, causing injuries to his arms, hand, neck, buttocks and legs. These wounds were from birdshot (smaller pellets). Deputy Koester also had a nonfatal wound to his armpit and chest in which buckshot (larger pellets) entered his armpit, travelled through his chest and into his right lung causing bleeding there. According to the medical examiner, Dr. Steven Cogswell, the last and fatal shot was with birdshot pellets that entered Deputy Koester's head above his left eye and lodged in his brain. Dr. Cogswell testified that death would have occurred between thirty seconds and one minute after infliction of the fatal head wound. The jury found Wheeler guilty as charged of the first-degree premeditated murder of Deputy Koester and guilty as charged on all the other counts. The case proceeded to the penalty phase.

The Penalty Phase

Evidence at the penalty phase showed that after his arrest, Wheeler was hospitalized and under guard at the Orlando Regional Medical Center due to his gunshot wounds. While there, he told a detention center guard, Richard Brown, that he had been arguing with Heckerman on the day of the murder and his main intention was "to go after" Heckerman. He told Brown that he did not like people on his property and would have shot anyone he found there. Wheeler reported to Brown that when he came out of the woods with his shotgun, he saw deputies stringing crime scene tape, and that he "had a choice""I could either run or I could go out in a blaze of glory." Wheeler also described to Brown how he tried to escape on the dirt bike, jumped into the water, and later tried to retrieve his shotgun. Brown said Wheeler expressed some remorse to the nurses and to his pastor while in the hospital.

The state presented victim impact evidence through Deputy Koester's family members. The gist of the testimony of all of Deputy Koester's family members was that he was a hard worker whose mother died when he was a young teen. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade but Deputy Koester later graduated from the police academy and served as a police officer in Umatilla, Florida, where he obtained certification to teach law enforcement. He was a dedicated family man and was a great dad to his children from his first marriage as well as to his stepchildren in his second marriage. He participated in many family functions, was a loving husband, brother and father, as well as an asset to the community as a deputy, Little League coach, and member of the National Guard. Finally, Sheriff Chris Daniels testified that Deputy Koester was in fact a sworn Lake County Deputy Sheriff. The State also presented fifty-four victim and family photographs mounted on four poster boards, depicting Deputy Koester in different settings with family members, serving in the National Guard, coaching, and at other functions.

The defense presented the mitigation testimony of two of Wheeler's friends, his pastor, and several of his family members including his mother, half sisters, aunt, uncle, and adoptive father. The net of this testimony was that Wheeler was never abused and lived a normal, happy childhood. Wheeler was a wonderful father, brother, friend, and nephew who worked hard and was remorseful for these crimes. After the doublewide mobile home Wheeler and Heckerman lived in was heavily damaged by hurricanes in 2004 and Wheeler lost his job, Wheeler was under a lot of stress, resulting in heavy methamphetamine use that changed his personality. Wheeler's stress was also the result of Heckerman's failure to take care of their children, her abuse of Wheeler, and her damage to repairs Wheeler had made on the doublewide. Wheeler's aunt testified on cross-examination that she had told police after the murder that several years prior to the incident, Wheeler said that Heckerman would call the police one day and, when they came and started shooting at him, he would take down as many as he could before they got him.

The jury recommended a sentence of death by a vote of ten to two. After the Spencer hearing,2 the trial court entered its sentencing order on October 23, 2006, in which it found three aggravators. The court found that that the murder was cold, calculated, and premeditated (CCP) and gave that aggravator great weight. The trial court also found that the murder was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest, and gave this aggravator great weight. See § 921.141(5)(e), Fla. Stat. (2005). The trial court recognized that where the victim is a law enforcement officer, that aggravator may not be doubled with the other statutory aggravators that are based on the same evidence. Thus, the trial court combined in this one "avoid arrest" aggravator two other statutory aggravators-that the victim was a law enforcement officer engaged in official duties and that the murder was committed to disrupt or hinder the enforcement of law. See § 921.141(5)(g), (j), Fla. Stat. (2005). Finally, the trial court found in aggravation that Wheeler was previously convicted of a violent felony, based on his convictions of the contemporaneous violent felonies involving the other victims in this case. See § 921.141(5)(b), Fla. Stat. (2005). This aggravator was given some weight in the sentencing order.

The trial court rejected a finding, as an aggravating circumstance, that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel (HAC), citing the fact that the circumstances of the shooting were similar to other cases in which this Court has rejected HAC for gunshot murders that were not accompanied by circumstances showing that the killing was conscienceless, pitiless, or unnecessarily...

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