On July 1, 2021, The Supreme Court of Florida decided case Cruz v. State, affirming the defendant’s convictions for first-degree murder. However, the real importance of this case is their decision to reverse the defendant’s death sentence and remand (send the case back down to the trial court level) for resentencing.
Factual Background of the Case
In 2019, a unanimous jury recommended the death penalty for the defendant, Christian Cruz, who was found guilty of the first-degree murder of Christopher Jeremy, a 25-year-old Floridian. In 2013, Cruz and another individual, Justin Charles, allegedly broke into Jeremy’s Deltona apartment, beat him, bound him, and transferred him into the trunk of Jeremy’s rental car. Cruz and Charles then drove Jeremy to a rural area of Sanford where they took him out of the trunk and delivered a fatal gunshot to the back of his head. Investigators on the case allege that Cruz and Charles were attempting to rob a drug dealer, Mark Walters, who had lived in Jeremy’s apartment previously but had since moved out. Allegedly, Cruz and Charles had previously bought marijuana from Walters in that apartment. Walters was friends with Jeremy and let Jeremy, a new Floridian who had moved from New Hampshire, stay in his apartment until he found a new place to live. While Jeremy had a young daughter and a girlfriend, he occupied Walters’ apartment alone since he felt the area was unsafe. Cruz and his defense team appealed the capital sentence in 2020, and on December 21, 2020, Florida’s Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
The Basis of the Appeal
Cruz raised fourteen claims on appeal:
The trial court improperly denied Cruz’s motion to suppress statements he had made to police officers when arrested,
The trial court improperly denied Cruz’s motion in limine to exclude the police officer’s testimony regarding the previously identified statements,
The trial court improperly informed jurors during jury selection that they would not be allowed to ask witnesses questions during trial,
The prosecutor made improper statements during their guilt-phase opening statement,
There is insufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that Cruz was in possession of and discharged a firearm,
The cumulative effect of the errors during the guilt phase as outlined above,
The prosecutor made improper comments during their penalty-phase opening statement,
The prosecutor made improper comments during their penalty-phase closing argument,
The trial court improperly admitted evidence of Cruz’s prior robbery conviction,
The trial court improperly admitted ithe testimony of a state expert that stated Cruz was involved in a prior robbery of a drug dealer,
The trial court failed to instruct the jury to make an Enmund-Tison finding in the penalty-phase verdict,
The trial court’s sentencing order had cumulative and individual errors and requires a reversal,
Florida capital sentencing scheme is unconstitutional, and
The cumulative effect of the error as to the penalty-phase claims.
The Court also considered whether there existed sufficient evidence to sustain Cruz’s first-degree murder convictions.
The Supreme Court of Florida’s Decision
The Supreme Court of Florida ultimately affirmed Cruz’s convictions but reversed and remanded for the purpose of resentencing by the trial court and a new sentencing order. This is because the Court found that the lower court relied on evidence outside the record from the trial of Cruz’s co-defendant, Charles, in making the determination that Cruz was the shooter and sentencing Cruz to capital punishment. As to each individual claim, the Supreme Court held:
The officers had the necessary reasonable suspicion that criminal activity had occurred or would occur to detain Cruz, and therefore, his unprovoked statements to the officer were admissible evidence. The Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of Cruz’s motion to suppress.
The officer’s testimony regarding Cruz’s statements after arrest were relevant to Cruz’s awareness of criminal activity and reasonably related to Cruz’s flight to avoid arrest and prosecution. The Court denied relief on this claim.
The Court found this argument to be without merit and subsequently denied relief on this claim.
Cruz failed to object to the prosecutor’s improper comments and did not explain how the jury’s verdict was affected by these comments such that the verdict would not have been rendered absent the comments. The court found that the prosecutor’s comment did not stray from the evidence enough to constitute fundamental error, so they denied relief on this claim.
The Court found that there was no competent, substantial evidence in the record to support the jury’s findings that Cruz possessed and discharged a firearm. But, since there is competent, substantial evidence in the record to support the jury’s findings that Cruz was a principal to Jeremy’s murder, his integral role in the crime made it so that the Court would not reverse his conviction based upon this alone.
The jury’s unsupported findings that Cruz was in possession of and discharged a firearm, as stated above, was harmless error, and this error did not deprive Cruz of a fair trial. Therefore, the Court found no merit to Cruz’s claim that there was cumulative error as to the guilt-phase of the proceeding.
The Court combined this finding with #8. The Court found that Cruz failed to show how the prosecutor’s comments rose to the level of fundamental error by improperly inflaming the emotions and passions of the jury. Therefore, the Court denied relief on these claims.
The Court found the Cruz’s prior conviction of robbery with a firearm and the subsequent testimony was relevant to the prior violent felony aggravating factor. Accordingly, the Court denied relief on this claim.
The Court found that the state expert’s testimony about Cruz’s prior involvement in the robbery of a drug dealer did not go to the foundation of the case and was not a feature of the trial. Therefore, the Court denied relief on this claim since Cruz failed to establish that it amounted to fundamental error.
The Court found that, according to the record, the omission of a Enmund-Tison instruction did not constitute fundamental error. Therefore, the Court denied relief on this claim.
The Court agreed that the trial court improperly sentenced him to death based on facts that were not admitted during his guilty phase of the proceeding and that came from his co-defendant’s trial. The Court reversed and remanded for the purposes of resentencing and issued a new sentencing order. I will discuss this in further detail below.
The arguments Cruz raised in support of his claim that Florida’s capital punishment scheme is unconstitutional are ones that the Florida Supreme Court have already and repeatedly rejected. Therefore, the Court denied revisiting the precedents in their opinion.
The Court found that a new penalty phase is not required, but, since they concluded that the trial court improperly relied on facts not in the record in sentencing Cruz to death and are remanding for a new sentencing by the trial court and a new sentencing order, the Court did not address the cumulative error pertaining to the judge’s portion of the penalty phase.
The Court found that competent, substantial evidence supported Cruz’s first-degree murder convictions.
The Takeaway – The Importance of a Proper Record for Sentencing
The Florida Supreme Court granted Cruz relief on this claim because it is improper for a trial court to consider “evidence from a different trial that was not introduced in the guilt phase of the present trial. When the trial court sentenced Cruz to death, they relied on evidence from his co-defendant’s trial. Specifically, they relied on the testimony of the co-defendant’s girlfriend regarding observing Cruz with a .22 caliber firearm, as well as the stipulation in Charles’ trial that Cruz was the one who shot Jeremy. But there existed no competent, substantial evidence in Cruz’s trial to support the jury’s finding that he was the shooter. Therefore, the Supreme Court could not determine what weight the trial judge gave to the non-record evidence. Due to this, the Court found that this error was not harmless. They directed the trial court to resentence and prepare a new sentencing order based only on the evidence that existed in Cruz’s trial. This case shows the importance of an accurate record and an untainted proceeding, especially in a case as serious as one carrying capital punishment.
Attorney Don Pumphrey, Jr. is a former prosecutor, former law enforcement officer, and a successful and experienced criminal defense attorney. Don has achieved over 100 not guilty verdicts at trial and over 2,000 dismissals.