Williams v. State

Decision Date05 March 1997
Docket NumberNo. 95-2301,95-2301
Citation689 So.2d 393
Parties22 Fla. L. Weekly D579 Anthony WILLIAMS, Appellant, v. The STATE of Florida, Appellee.
CourtFlorida District Court of Appeals

Bennett H. Brummer, Public Defender, and Brent E. Newton and Marti J. Rothenberg, Assistant Public Defenders, for appellant.

Robert A. Butterworth, Attorney General, and Richard L. Polin, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.


SHEVIN, Judge.

Anthony Williams appeals a judgment of convictions for first degree felony murder and robbery of Barbara Meller Jensen, a German tourist visiting Miami. We affirm.

Williams raises several issues on appeal. We address each issue in turn. First, he raises as error the denial of his motions to recuse the trial judge based on her alleged bias in favor of the prosecution. The initial and amended motions asserted five grounds in support of recusal: 1. the trial court sua sponte offered a race-neutral reason upon Williams' objection to one of the state's peremptory strikes; 2. the court denied defense counsel's request to continue voir dire until the next day; 3. the court sua sponte objected to defense counsel's comments to the venire; 4. the court embarrassed defense counsel by sua sponte making and sustaining an objection to defense counsel's question to a prospective juror; and 5. the court denied defense counsel's request to address the court outside the prospective jurors' presence as to Williams' request for a stay to file a writ of prohibition. We find no error in the court's denials of the motions.

"A [recusal] motion is legally sufficient if it shows that the party making the motion has a well-grounded fear that he or she will not receive a fair trial from the presiding judge." Barwick v. State, 660 So.2d 685, 691 (Fla.1995), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 116 S.Ct. 823, 133 L.Ed.2d 766 (1996); § 38.10, Fla. Stat. (1995); Fla. R. Jud. Admin. 2.160. The motion "must be well-founded and contain facts germane to the judge's undue bias, prejudice, or sympathy." Jackson v. State, 599 So.2d 103, 107 (Fla.), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 1004, 113 S.Ct. 612, 121 L.Ed.2d 546 (1992). Applying this criteria to Williams' motions, ground one clearly does not set forth a basis for recusal. The record does not support Williams' contention that the court offered a race-neutral reason to justify the state's exercise of a peremptory challenge. Instead, the record indicates that the court made an innocuous inquiry concerning the prospective juror's availability to serve on the venire: the juror had stated that she was scheduled to begin nursing school shortly. 1 The court's question to the attorneys in an attempt to clarify the juror's availability does not demonstrate prejudice. See Pope v. Wainwright, 496 So.2d 798, 802 (Fla.1986), cert. denied, 480 U.S. 951, 107 S.Ct. 1617, 94 L.Ed.2d 801 (1987). Cf. Chastine v. Broome, 629 So.2d 293 (Fla. 4th DCA 1993)(judge's ex parte cross-examination tip to prosecutor sufficient to demonstrate bias). Furthermore, Williams does not challenge the propriety of permitting the state to exercise the challenge. See Nassetta v. Kaplan, 557 So.2d 919, 920 (Fla. 4th DCA 1990).

The remaining grounds for recusal asserted by Williams merely denote a dissatisfaction with the trial court's rulings rather than evidence of the judge's bias in favor of the prosecution or prejudice against defense counsel. It is well-settled law that a judge's adverse rulings may not serve as a sufficient basis for recusal. Barwick, 660 So.2d at 692; Jackson, 599 So.2d at 107; Provenzano v. State, 616 So.2d 428, 432 (Fla.1993); Gilliam v. State, 582 So.2d 610, 611 (Fla.1991); Tafero v. State, 403 So.2d 355, 361 (Fla.1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 983, 102 S.Ct. 1492, 71 L.Ed.2d 694 (1982); Heier v. Fleet, 642 So.2d 669 (Fla. 4th DCA 1994). Furthermore, it is within the province of the court to interject itself, without objection, albeit rarely, into voir dire examination concerning counsel's questions or comments. Brown v. State, 678 So.2d 910, 913 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996). See Oglesby v. State, 156 Fla. 481, 23 So.2d 558, 559 (1945). The record in this case reveals that the court sua sponte objected to a comment and a question by defense counsel to the prospective jurors during voir dire. Those actions, without more, do not demonstrate that the court departed from its proper position of neutrality, where, as here, the court properly exercised its authority without harshness or repeated interjections. See Jackson v. State, 545 So.2d 260, 264 (Fla.1989); Pope v. Wainwright, 496 So.2d at 802, and cited cases. See generally Williams v. State, 143 So.2d 484, 488 (Fla.1962). Thus, the court correctly denied the recusal motions as legally insufficient. 2

Second, Williams argues that the state did not present a prima facie corpus delicti of the felony murder or robbery charge thereby precluding admission of Williams' confession. The state sought to admit into evidence Williams' confession describing his participation in the crime. In his statement to police, Williams admitted driving a friend's car and intentionally bumping the victim's car in order to rob her. He stated that the victim stopped and exited her vehicle to examine the damage. At that point, two passengers got out of Williams' car and grabbed the victim's purse. When the assailants returned to the car, the victim grabbed the door handle of Williams' car. Williams then backed up the car, drove forward, and felt the car sway from side to side as if it had run over something. Williams continued driving and when he looked in the rear-view mirror, he saw the victim lying on the ground. Williams then drove to a canal where the assailants searched the purse, filled the purse with rocks, and threw it into the canal. Williams directed the police to that canal, and the police retrieved the victim's purse.

"An individual's confession to a crime is insufficient evidence of a criminal act where no independent evidence exists to substantiate the occurrence of the crime." Sochor v. State, 580 So.2d 595, 600 (Fla.1991), judgment vacated on other grounds, 504 U.S. 527, 112 S.Ct. 2114, 119 L.Ed.2d 326 (1992). In addition, "[a] defendant's confession or statement 'may be considered in connection with the other evidence,' but 'the corpus delicti cannot rest upon the confession or admission alone.' " Schwab v. State, 636 So.2d 3, 6 (Fla.) (quoting Cross v. State, 96 Fla. 768, 781, 119 So. 380, 384 (1928)), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 950, 115 S.Ct. 364, 130 L.Ed.2d 317 (1994). Therefore, the state must introduce substantial independent evidence of corpus delicti that tends to show that the charged crimes were committed. Farinas v. State, 569 So.2d 425, 430 (Fla.1990); Thomas v. State, 531 So.2d 708, 711 (Fla.1988). A prima facie corpus delicti serves to ensure "[t]he judicial quest for truth [which] requires that no person be convicted out of derangement, mistake or official fabrication." State v. Allen, 335 So.2d 823, 825 (Fla.1976); Burks v. State, 613 So.2d 441, 443 (Fla.1993).

The corpus delicti for homicide requires independent direct or circumstantial proof of three elements: a person's death, the criminal agency of another as the cause and the identity of the victim. McKinney v. State, 579 So.2d 80, 82-83 (Fla.1991); Farinas, 569 So.2d at 430; Meeks v. State, 339 So.2d 186 (Fla.1976); Davis v. State, 582 So.2d 695 (Fla. 1st DCA 1991); Ruiz v. State, 388 So.2d 610, 611 n. 2 (Fla. 3d DCA 1980), review denied, 392 So.2d 1380 (Fla.1981); Reyes v. State, 155 So.2d 663 (Fla. 3d DCA 1963). The record reveals ample evidence of the victim's identity, her death, and that the victim's death was caused by the criminal agency of another.

The state presented evidence that the victim, a tourist from Germany, arrived at Miami International Airport and rented a car at an airport car rental agency; a short time later her car was bumped by another car, and she exited the car; at that time, she sustained a crushing head injury when a car ran over her head; her wallet was found on the ground near her body; 3 her address labels were found in a blue Cadillac; and her missing purse was found loaded with stones in a canal. Thus, the record contains evidence that tends to show that the perpetrators bumped the victim's car in order to rob her and that she was run over and killed as the car left the scene. Furthermore, Williams' confession "correspond[s] well" with the physical evidence: the victim's head had been run over by a car tire, and the victim's purse was found filled with stones in a canal. Schwab v. State, 636 So.2d at 6. Although some of the evidence is circumstantial, it is not, as Williams suggests, equally or more likely that the death was caused by a noncriminal car accident. Circumstantial evidence by its nature, is subject to diverging interpretations. However, in this case, the evidence is "sufficient to negate all reasonable defense hypotheses as to cause of death and show beyond a reasonable doubt that the death was caused by the criminal agency of another person." Golden v. State, 629 So.2d 109, 111 (Fla.1993). See Davis v. State, 582 So.2d at 700 (unnecessary to negate all noncriminal explanations before admitting confession); Hester v. State, 310 So.2d 455, 457 (Fla. 2d DCA 1975). Therefore, the record establishes that the state presented prima facie corpus delicti evidence of felony murder.

In addition, this evidence establishes the corpus delicti of robbery. Contrary to Williams' contention, there is sufficient evidence permitting the inference that the assailants robbed the victim of her purse, either from her car or her person when she exited her car, and that the force used to effect the robbery occurred at that time. Therefore, the state has shown that the victim suffered the type of harm contemplated by the robbery charge and that the harm was caused by the criminal agency of another. See State v. Allen, ...

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