The new sentencing hearing for the murderer of Bud and Melanie Billings has been delayed while the Florida Supreme Court hears his latest appeal.
Last year, Escambia County Circuit Court Judge Nikolas Geeker ordered a new penalty phase for Patrick Gonzalez on the two counts of murder. In 2010, a jury voted 10-2 for the death penalty.
In early 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Florida’s capital sentencing process——which had the jury make recommendations on the death penalty but the judge decided the facts——violated the Sixth Amendment requirement that a jury find the aggravating factors necessary for imposing the death penalty.
The case, Hurst v. Florida, was also an Escambia County murder case. In 1998, Timothy Hurst killed Cynthia Harrison, a co-worker at Popeye’s Chicken, during a botched robbery attempt.
The Florida legislature passed a new statute to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court judgement and changed the sentencing method to require a 10-juror supermajority for a sentence of death with a life sentence as the alternative. This new sentencing scheme was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in a 5-2 ruling in October 2016. The court held that a death sentence must be issued by a unanimous jury.
Gonzalez filed an appeal of his death sentence. Judge Geeker cited the Florida Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida as grounds to set aside the sentences imposed and ordered a new penalty phase.
Gonzalez and four other men – Frederick Thornton, Rakeem Florence, Donnie Stallworth and Wayne Coldiron – busted into the Billings home at dusk on July 9, 2009. The men intended to steal a safe that they believed contained millions of dollars.
Because the family had special needs children, the premises had several cameras that recorded the break-in and the shooting of Bud Billings. The actual murders of the couple took place in the master bedroom, the only room without surveillance. All the men wore masks.
In less than a week, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office arrested the five men and their accomplices—Pamela Long Wiggins, Leonard Gonzalez and Gary Sumner. All were eventually convicted. Thornton and Florence provided testimony against the others. Pam Wiggins and Leonard Gonzalez died in prison. Patrick Gonzalez received the only death sentence.
The new sentence hearing for Gonzalez has been tied up as the Florida Supreme Court hears the appeal he filed in June. His attorneys are appealing Claim One and Two of his Motion for Postconviction Relief that were denied in May 2017.
Claim One alleged that counsel for Gonzalez was ineffective for failing to properly argue for a change of venue.
The lower court denied the claim stating that Gonzalez could not establish any prejudice because counsel had presented a motion to change venue with supporting affidavits and the jurors were asked some questions by the state attorney during voir dire about whether they could set aside what they heard and be able to judge the case from the evidence presented at trial alone.
Since the panel agreed that they could, the lower court found that Gonzalez had not established prejudice. The lower court stated it “had no basis to conclude that had the additional information presented by defense counsel been presented the trial court would have or should have granted a motion for change of venue.”
Claim Two alleged that counsel for Gonzalez was ineffective for failing to challenge the grand jury indictment on the grounds that Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan engaged in outrageous governmental misconduct by improperly influencing members of the grand jury who issued the indictment against Gonzalez.
The lower court’s reasoning in denying the claim was that it was based on “speculation” that Sheriff Morgan actually greeted the members of the grand jury, and even if he did Mr. Gonzalez suffered no prejudice as the evidence was so overwhelming another grand jury would have also indicted Gonzalez.
Gonzalez’s attorneys pointed that no evidentiary hearing was granted as to either claim. They asked the Florida Supreme Court to reverse the summary denials of the two claims and remand the case for evidentiary hearing.
In November 2017, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a Motion to Dismiss Gonzalez’ appeal. In a nutshell, she argued that since the death sentence had been vacated by the lower court and judgment was not final in the case that the Florida Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction.
On Dec. 29, the Florida Supreme Court denied the state’s motion.
No word on when the court will make its decision on the appeal.
Here is a summary of the Harrison murder case:
Cynthia Harrison was an assistant manager of a Popeye’s fast food restaurant in Pensacola, Florida. Timothy Hurst was a morning prep person at the same restaurant, and his responsibility was to make rice and biscuits and wash dishes.
On 05/02/98, Harrison and Hurst were scheduled to work at 8 a.m. The two were scheduled to be the only workers in the restaurant until another worker arrived at 9 a.m.
Davis Kladitis, an occasional customer at Popeye’s, was standing outside a feed store near the restaurant when he saw Harrison drive by and waved to her. Kladitis also saw another car behind Harrison’s, being driven by a black man.
Kladitis later identified the car as the one belonging to Timothy Hurst. Carl Hess, who worked at a nearby Wendy’s restaurant, reported seeing Hurst being let into the Popeye’s by Harrison.
At 7:55 a.m., Jeanette Hayes, an employee at another Popeye’s employee, called restaurant Harrison and told her that a delivery truck was en route. Hayes noted that Harrison did not sound scared.
Tanya Crenshaw, another assistant manager at the restaurant, arrived at the restaurant at 10:30 a.m. to find two employees and a delivery truck driver waiting outside the restaurant. Hurst was nowhere to be found, but Harrison’s body–bound and gagged with black electrical tape–was found in the freezer.
The body had over sixty incised slash and stab wounds, all of which were consistent with having been made by a box cutter, which was found by the back door of the restaurant.
Lee Smith, a friend of Hurst, testified that Hurst had stopped by his house on the evening before the murder and said he planned to rob the Popeye’s restaurant where he worked.
At 8:30 a.m. on May 2, Hurst returned to Smith’s house, carrying a clear plastic container with money in it and a bank bag. The amount of money taken by Hurst was later determined to be $1751.54 of the store’s proceeds and $375 in small bills and change, all taken from the restaurant’s safe.
Hurst told Smith that he had killed “the manager” and put her in the freezer. Smith washed Hurst’s pants, which had blood spots on them. He also helped Hurst dispose of Harrison’s wallet and Hurst’s shoes and socks.
Hurst, Smith, and Hurst’s brother then went to a Wal-Mart store and bought a pair of shoes for Hurst. The three then went to a pawn shop, where Hurst bought three rings for $300.
Lee Smith’s parents were out of town at the time of the murder, but when they returned and found the clear plastic container and money in Smith’s room, they called the police.
Police interviewed Smith and searched a garbage can, where they found a coin purse with Harrison’s driver’s license in it, a bank bag marked with “Popeye’s” and Harrison’s name on it, a bank deposit slip, and a bloody sock and shoes that belonged to Hurst.
In its October 2016 decision, the Florida Supreme Court rejected Hurst’s claim that section 775.082(2), Florida Statutes (2016), mandated that he receive an automatic life sentence. It remanded him for a new penalty phase proceeding. That hearing has yet to happen. In November 2017, the State Attorney’s Office filed notice of its intent to seek the death penalty again.