Joe Elton Nixon v. State Of Florida
Supreme Court of Florida
Nos. SC92006, SC93192 & SC01-2486
JOE ELTON NIXON,
STATE OF FLORIDA,
JOE ELTON NIXON,
JAMES R. MCDONOUGH, etc.,
JOE ELTON NIXON,
STATE OF FLORIDA,
[April 20, 2006]
Joe Elton Nixon, a prisoner under a sentence of death, appeals an order of the trial court denying his motion for postconviction relief under Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.851. Additionally, he files a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with this Court. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1),(9), Fla. Const. We issued an opinion in this case which addressed Nixon's claim that trial counsel was ineffective for conceding his guilt to first-degree murder without his consent. We reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial. See Nixon v. State, 857 So. 2d 172 (Fla. 2003). The United States Supreme Court accepted the case for certiorari review and reversed this Court's decision. See Florida v. Nixon, 543 U.S. 175 (2004). We now readdress the ineffective assistance of counsel claim on the issue of concession of guilt, and we address the other issues raised in Nixon's appeal from the denial of 3.851 relief, as well as the issues raised in the habeas petition. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the trial court's denial of postconviction relief, and we deny habeas relief .
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Joe Elton Nixon was charged, convicted, and sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of a Tallahassee woman. This Court affirmed the conviction and sentence on direct appeal. See Nixon v. State, 572 So. 2d 1336 (Fla. 1990). The United States Supreme Court denied Nixon's petition for a writ of certiorari. See Nixon v. Florida, 502 U.S. 854 (1991). Subsequently, in 1993, Nixon filed a rule 3.850 motion, which the trial court denied without an evidentiary hearing. Nixon appealed the trial court's summary denial of his 3.850 motion to this Court. Additionally, Nixon filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with this Court. Nixon raised seven issues relating to the denial of his rule 3.850 motion and three issues in his habeas petition. See Nixon v. Singletary, 758 So. 2d 618 (Fla. 2000).
In Nixon II, this Court found the primary issue to be Nixon's claim that he was denied effective assistance of counsel when his lawyer conceded guilt without his consent. Nixon's counsel made the following statement during opening argument of the guilt phase:
In this case, there will be no question that Jeannie [sic] Bickner died a horrible, horrible death. Surely she did and that will be shown to you. In fact, that horrible tragedy will be proved to your satisfaction beyond any reasonable doubt.
In this case, there won't be any question, none whatsoever, that my client, Joe Elton Nixon, caused Jeannie [sic] Bickner's death. Likewise, that fact will be proved to your satisfaction beyond any reasonable doubt. This case is about the death of Joe Elton Nixon and whether it should occur within the next few years by electrocution or maybe its natural expiration after a lifetime of confinement.
Nixon, 758 So. 2d at 620.
During closing argument, Nixon's counsel made the following statement:
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I wish I could stand before you and argue that what happened wasn't caused by Mr. Nixon, but we all know better. For several very obvious and apparent reasons, you have been and will continue to be involved in a very uniquely tragic case. In just a little while Judge Hall will give you some verdict forms that have been prepared. He'll give you some instructions on how to deliberate this case. After you've gotten those forms and you've elected your foreperson and you've done what you must do, you will sign those forms. I know you are not going to take this duty lightly, and I know what you will decide will be unanimous. I think that what you will decide is that the State of Florida, Mr. Hankinson and Mr. Guarisco, through them, has proved its case against Joe Elton Nixon. I think you will find that the State has proved beyond a reasonable doubt each and every element of the crimes charged, firstâ€‘degree premeditated murder, kidnapping, robbery, and arson.
On appeal, the parties were in disagreement regarding the appropriate standard of review to be applied in the case. The State argued that the standard explained in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), should be applied, whereas Nixon argued that because counsel's concessions amounted to per se ineffective assistance of counsel, the United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984), standard was the proper test. Ultimately, this Court held that if Nixon could establish that he did not consent to counsel's strategy, then the Court would find counsel to be per se ineffective under the Cronic standard. This Court reasoned that the Cronic standard should apply because:
Although statements made by attorneys in closing arguments are not evidence, nevertheless, for all practical purposes, counsel's admission of guilt on behalf of his client denied to petitioner his constitutional right to have his guilt or innocence decided by the jury. Petitioner, in pleading not guilty, was entitled to have the issue of his guilt or innocence presented to the jury as an adversarial issue. Counsel's complete concession of petitioner's guilt nullified the adversarial quality of this fundamental issue.
Nixon II, 758 So. 2d at 623 (quoting Wiley v. Sowders, 647 F.2d 642, 650 (6th Cir. 1981)). Since counsel's comments operated as the "functional equivalent of a guilty plea," this Court concluded that "Nixon's claim must prevail at the evidentiary hearing below if the testimony establishes that there was not an affirmative, explicit acceptance by Nixon of counsel's strategy. Silent acquiescence is not enough." Id. at 624. To avoid similar problems in the future, this Court said:
[W]e hold that if a trial judge ever suspects that a similar strategy is being attempted by counsel for the defense, the judge should stop the proceedings and question the defendant on the record as to whether or not he or she consents to counsel's strategy. This will ensure that the defendant has in fact intelligently and voluntarily consented to counsel's strategy of conceding guilt.
Id. at 625 (citations omitted). Accordingly, we remanded the case to the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing on the issue of whether Nixon consented to trial counsel's strategy.
On remand, an evidentiary hearing was held before Judge Janet Ferris on May 11, 2001. Although Nixon was present at the evidentiary hearing, he did not testify; the only witness presented was Michael Corin, Nixon's trial counsel. After the hearing, the trial court denied relief and found that Nixon consented to counsel's strategy. On appeal to this Court, we applied the per se ineffective assistance of counsel standard from United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984), found counsel ineffective, and remanded for a new trial. See Nixon v. State, 857 So. 2d 172 (Fla. 2003).
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari review and held that claims of ineffective assistance of counsel based on counsel's concession of guilt to the crime charged, even without the defendant's consent, are to be analyzed under the principles enunciated in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). See Florida v. Nixon, 543 U.S. 175 (2004). We now determine all of Nixon's ineffective assistance of counsel claims under that standard and address the other issues raised in this 3.850 appeal and the habeas petition.
LAW AND ANALYSIS
Motion for Postconviction Relief
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel/Concession of Guilt
We initially held that Nixon was entitled to a new trial because the defense attorney conceded his guilt to first-degree murder without obtaining his consent to this trial strategy. See Nixon v. State, 857 So. 2d 172 (Fla. 2003). Our grant of a new trial was based on this Court's earlier opinion in this case which held that the per se standard of ineffective assistance of counsel was applicable to a situation where the defendant had not agreed to trial counsel's strategy of conceding guilt to the crime charged. See Nixon v. Singletary, 758 So. 2d 618 (Fla. 2000). However, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari review and said:
We granted certiorari, 540 U.S. 1217 (2004), to resolve an important question of constitutional law, i.e., whether counsel's failure to obtain the defendant's express consent to a strategy of conceding guilt in a capital trial automatically renders counsel's performance deficient, and whether counsel's effectiveness should be evaluated under Cronic or Strickland.
Florida v. Nixon, 543 U.S. 175, 186-87 (2004). After a discussion of the issue, the supreme court answered this question and held:
To summarize, in a capital case, counsel must consider in conjunction both the guilt and penalty phases in determining how best to proceed. When counsel informs the defendant of the strategy counsel believes to be in the defendant's best interest and the defendant is unresponsive, counsel's strategic choice is not impeded by any blanket rule demanding the defendant's explicit consent. Instead, if counsel's strategy, given the evidence bearing on the defendant's guilt, satisfies the Strickland standard, that is the end of the matter; no tenable claim of ineffective assistance would remain.
Id. at 192.
Therefore, in order to obtain relief based on ineffective assistance of counsel for conceding guilt without the defendant's consent, the defendant must demonstrate that counsel's performance was deficient and that the defendant was prejudiced by the deficient performance as required under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). As to the performance prong of Strickland, the defendant must establish that â€