Florida Supreme Court Considers Appeals of Denials of Motions for Postconviction Relief in Two Death Penalty Cases: Paul Christopher Hildwin v. State, SC09-1417, and Michael Coleman v. State, SC04-1520 and SC09-92

On June 2, 2011, the Florida Supreme Court issued two opinions involving appeals of motions for postconviction relief in death penalty cases: Paul Christopher Hildwin v. State, SC09-1417, and Michael Coleman v. State, SC04-1520 and SC09-92.  In both cases, the Court analyzed the Defendants’ claims of ineffective assistance of counsel under the two-part test of Strickland v.Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), and came to opposite conclusions regarding counsel’s performance.  (A copy of Strickland can be found here).

In Hildwin, the Court concluded that counsel for Hildwin did not render ineffective assistance of counsel when he failed to present the testimony of a mental health expert at a second penalty phase proceeding, and that counsel was likewise not ineffective for failing to provide certain mental health records to another mental health expert prior to the second penalty phase proceeding.  However, even assuming arguendo that counsel was ineffective, the Court went on to conclude that Hildwin failed to show that he was prejudiced because, after consideration of all the aggravators and mitigators present in the case, Hildwin failed to show that confidence in the outcome of the penalty phase proceedings had been undermined, as required by Porter v. McCollum, 130 S. Ct. 447, 455-456 (2009).  (A slip opinion of Porter can be found here).  Finally, the Court rejected Hildwin’s ineffectiveness claim based on counsel’s failure to object during closing argument.  In so doing, the Court found that Hildwin failed to show that he was prejudiced because the arguably objectionable comments were relatively brief and not emphasized by the prosecutor.

In Coleman, after Coleman was convicted of first degree murder, the jury recommended a sentence of life imprisonment.  However, the trial court overrode the jury recommendation and imposed four death sentences.  The sentences were affirmed on direct appeal based in part on the lack of mitigation presented by counsel.  On appeal of the lower court’s denial of his subsequent motions for postconviction relief, the Court reversed Coleman’s death sentences.  In its rationale, the Court concluded that counsel was ineffective for relying on Coleman’s alibi defense, and for failing to conduct any investigation into Coleman’s background to search for possible mitigating evidence.  No doubt, important factors influencing the Court’s decision were the facts that (1) an evidentiary hearing revealed that a significant amount of mitigation evidence was available, but never presented by Coleman’s counsel; and, (2) Coleman’s counsel admitted at that same evidentiary hearing that he did not retain an investigator or seek a mental health evaluation because he believed Coleman’s alibi defense and because he did not spend much time preparing for the penalty phase of the trial.  As stated by the Court, failing to conduct a reasonable investigation or failing to present mitigation absent a waiver constitute ineffective assistance of counsel.  The Court also determined that Coleman was prejudiced by counsel’s ineffectiveness because a presentation of mitigation would have precluded the trial judge from overriding the jury’s recommendation of life imprisonment, and would have allowed the Court to make a more informed disposition of Coleman’s previous direct appeal.

Apart from the legal conclusions on the narrow issues of ineffective assistance of counsel, the opinions in Hildwin and Coleman are also noteworthy for two other reasons.  First, in both Hildwin and Coleman, the Court reiterated the applicable standard of review, noting that because both prongs of the Strickland test present mixed questions of law and fact, after a hearing on the ineffective assistance claim, the Court would defer to factual findings of the trial court so long as they were supported by competent substantial evidence, but would review the application of the law to those facts under the de novo standard.

Second, in Coleman, the Court clarified the resentencing procedure to be employed in postconviction cases involving jury overrides.  After admitting to inconsistencies in previous cases, the Court receded from prior decisions where the cases had been remanded to the trial court for resentencing, and reaffirmed a more recent decision where the Court remanded the matter to the trial court for the imposition of a life sentence.  The Court also restated the applicable standards for jury override cases.