Willie James Hodges appeal of first-degree murder conviction — (Supreme Court of Florida)

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Supreme Court of Florida

Dec 2, 2010

Willie James Hodges was convicted of first-degree murder for the killing of Patricia Belanger in 2001. Hodges was sentenced to death. This case is before the Court on appeal from the conviction and death sentence. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the conviction and sentence.


The evidence presented at trial established that on the morning of December 19, 2001, Hodges entered Belanger‘s home, fatally stabbed and bludgeoned her, and then fled through a window.

Several of Belanger‘s relatives testified that they drove to her house that morning to take Belanger to the airport. The family was going to visit out-of-town relatives for the holidays. Stanley Clinton Taylor, Belanger‘s son-in-law, explained that when he, his wife, their children, and his father arrived at Belanger‘s home, her front door was closed and locked. The family knocked, but no one
answered. Debra Taylor, Belanger‘s daughter, used her key to unlock the door, but once unlocked, the door would not open. The family looked for an unlocked window and tried the front door again. That time, the door opened but only about an inch. After walking around the house, Stanley returned to the front door and found it completely closed and again locked. As Stanley unlocked the door, he heard his stepson say that he saw someone in the house, and at about the same moment, he heard glass break. Stanley was then able to reach in the door and move the chair that was blocking it. Joe Taylor, Stanley‘s father, similarly testified that as they entered in the house, he heard crashing noises and glass breaking.

 Once the door was open, Stanley saw Belanger lying face down in the dining room. Her jacket was wrapped around her head and her pants were pulled down around her legs.   Debra testified that as she heard the glass breaking, she saw a man run from the house. The man then ―hurdled‖ the fence in Belanger‘s yard. He wore a blue and gray jacket, a black hood that was like a ski mask, and dungaree-style jeans.

Debra described him as taller than five feet four inches but shorter than six feet tall. The man was carrying something, but Debra could not identify the object because it appeared to be wrapped in black cloth. Debra never found her mother‘s purse, her wallet, or her driver‘s license in the house. Stanley and Joe called 911. Michael Rayborn, an officer with the Escambia County Sheriff‘s Office (ECSO) in December 2001, was dispatched to Belanger‘s home. After being told about the man seen fleeing from the house, Rayborn called for a K-9 unit. Robert Nowlin, Jr., an officer with ECSO in December 2001, and his canine partner Rex arrived about fifteen minutes later and began to track the suspect from the east side of the residence where a window was broken. Rex immediately jumped the fence in Belanger‘s yard. Nowlin found a white sock just over the fence. Rex then tracked to the rear of the neighbor‘s yard and jumped another fence. Nowlin found another white sock. Rex tracked through a swampy area, in which Nowlin found a shoe. Rex continued to a clay pit, where Nowlin saw footprints from someone running barefoot. Rex and Nowlin continued through a wooded area into an open field. They followed the wood line to Hollywood Drive, where Rex lost the scent. Nowlin then had the dog track in reverse. As they returned to Belanger‘s home, Nowlin found another shoe and a Members Only jacket.

Several law enforcement officers testified about the crime scene at Belanger‘s home. When law enforcement officers arrived, Belanger was lying face down in the dining room. Her pants and panties were pulled down to her legs and a jacket covered her head. Blood was pooling on her right side. A claw hammer and a brown leather braided belt were found near the body. A bedroom window on the right side of the house was broken, and a knife and several photographs were on the ground outside the window. The knife had a black plastic handle, while the knives in Belanger‘s kitchen had wooden handles. The dresser in the master bedroom, the room where the window was broken, had a drawer full of crew-style white socks similar in style to the socks found by Nowlin.
Dr. Gary Dean Cumberland, who was the Chief Medical Examiner of the First District of Florida in 2001, testified about Belanger‘s injuries and cause of death. He found two lacerations on Belanger‘s head and fractures to her skull under the lacerations. Dr. Cumberland opined that the head injuries were consistent with having been inflicted by a hammer and were consistent with being caused by the hammer in evidence. Dr. Cumberland testified about an incise wound that was four and three-quarter inches in length and a stab wound to Belanger‘s neck, which cut her jugular vein. He opined that the neck wounds were the correct shape and depth to have been caused by the steak knife in evidence.
Various witnesses connected Hodges to the jacket, shoes, belt, knife, and photographs found in and near Belanger‘s home. Debra Taylor testified that the recovered Members Only jacket and shoes looked like the clothing worn by the man she saw running from her mother‘s home…The DNA profile developed from blood on one of the socks found by Nowlin was the same as Hodges‘ known DNA profile on all thirteen markers, and partial DNA profiles developed from the other sock were also consistent with Hodges‘ known DNA profile…
Dr. James Larson, a psychologist specializing in forensic psychology, testified that he examined Hodges, reviewed records about Hodges, interviewed family members and other individuals, and reviewed evaluations of Hodges performed by other doctors. Dr. Larson testified that he learned that Hodges came from an impoverished background and was raised by parents who drank excessively and fought with one another. Two of Hodges‘ siblings were ―[a]pparently‖ mentally retarded, and one of those siblings spent some time in a mental institution. Jail records indicated that Hodges had been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder, and depression, and had been treated with two or three different psychotropic medications and antidepressants. Dr. Larson also indicated that Hodges was addicted to illegal drugs. Dr. Larson opined that due to his drug addiction and mental retardation, Hodges‘ capacity to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law was substantially impaired. But on cross-examination, Dr. Larson testified that he believed Hodges knows right from wrong and that Hodges never lacked the capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct…