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Date: 06-29-2020

Case Style:


Case Number: SC18-806


Court: Supreme Court of Florida

Plaintiff's Attorney: Ashley Moody, Attorney General, and Janine D. Robinson, Assistant Attorney

Defendant's Attorney:

Need help finding a lawyer for representation appealing from a judgment of conviction of first-degree murder and a sentence of death in Florida?

Call 918-582-6422. It's Free


The Incident and Response
Around 9:40 p.m. on the night of January 9, 2014, corrections officers
responded to a disturbance in the K dormitory at the RMC. Captain William
Hamilton was the shift commander that evening, and he had just completed his
normal rounds, including the K dormitory, without incident. However, after
finishing his rounds, Captain Hamilton heard a banging noise while talking with
another officer, Sergeant Kelvin Young. Hamilton instructed Sergeant Young to
investigate the source of the noise and to advise if he needed help.
The source of the banging noise was inmates who were trying to get the
attention of the corrections officers and direct them to the cell where Burns and
Santiago-Gonzalez were housed. When Sergeant Young reached the cell,
Santiago-Gonzalez was standing inside the cell, and Burns, the victim of a brutal
stabbing, was lying on the floor. Burns was also tied up, his hands and his feet
both bound. Sergeant Young, who remained outside of the cell, advised via radio
that he needed help. Captain Hamilton went to the cell, called for assistance from
additional staff members, and notified the on-site medical personnel.
Santiago-Gonzalez had a knife in his hand that he refused to relinquish to the
corrections officers until a video camera was brought to the cell to record him. A
video camera was brought to the cell, and once the recording began, Santiago-
- 3 -
Gonzalez slid the knife under the cell door. He was restrained without incident.
While being escorted to a holding cell, Santiago-Gonzalez commented that he was
not interested in homosexual activity. A medical assessment of Santiago-Gonzalez
conducted shortly thereafter confirmed that he was uninjured.
In Burns’ cell, ligature cutters were used to remove the restraints that
Santiago-Gonzalez placed on him. Lieutenant Mark Ficken, who also heard the
radio calls, responded to the cell to provide assistance and brought a camera to
photograph the scene. Lieutenant Ficken observed Burns’ multiple stab wounds,
including a severe neck wound, and believed them to be life-threatening.
Burns was weak but communicative, and he repeatedly said that he was
afraid he was going to die. Lieutenant Ficken then questioned Burns about the
incident as follows:
FICKEN: Listen to me, listen to me. I need to know what happened
in there.
BURNS: I got stabbed multiple times.
FICKEN: By who?
BURNS: My roommate.
FICKEN: What happened? Why did he stab you?
BURNS: I don’t know.
FICKEN: How did he tie you up?
BURNS: I let him.
- 4 -
BURNS: I let him.
FICKEN: You let him tie you up. Why?
BURNS: I don’t know.
FICKEN: Talk to me man, I need to know what happened in there.
BURNS: Tied me up.
FICKEN: He tied—
BURNS: He tried to rape me.
BURNS: He tried to rape me.
FICKEN: You let him tie you up?
FICKEN: You just said you let him tie you up, why did you let him?
BURNS: I don’t know. I’m dying.
BURNS: I’m going to die.
FICKEN: They are going to work on you, man, you need to tell me
what happened.
BURNS: I guess (Unintelligible)
FICKEN: Why did you let him tie you up?
BURNS: I don’t know. I was a fool.
- 5 -
BURNS: I was a fool.
FICKEN: Were you all playing games?
BURNS: No, sir.
FICKEN: Well, then how did you let him tie you up?
BURNS: I just did.
FICKEN: What’s your roommate’s name?
BURNS: Santiago.
FICKEN: You all have a beef?
BURNS: No, sir. He did it out of spite.
BURNS: He did it out of spite.
FICKEN: Out of spite. Did he tie you up before he stabbed you?
BURNS: No, he tied me up and then stabbed me.
FICKEN: He tied you up and then stabbed you, huh?
BURNS: Yes, sir.
FICKEN: All right. So what I need to know though is how did he tie
you up? Did he hold you down?
FICKEN: Or did you let him do it?
BURNS: He held me down.
- 6 -
FICKEN: Look, man, I need you to be truthful for me.
BURNS: I am.
FICKEN: He held you down and then he tied you?
FICKEN: Hey, listening to me? What is your name, man?
BURNS: Burns.
Santiago-Gonzalez Interview
About three hours after the incident, senior inspector Kevin Ortiz conducted
an interview of Santiago-Gonzalez. After being advised of his Miranda rights,
Santiago-Gonzalez advised that he understood his rights and wanted to discuss the
incident. Santiago-Gonzalez explained that hours before the incident, he asked a
corrections officer to move him into Burns’ cell to facilitate Burns helping him
with his legal matters. He said that he knew Burns was in prison for committing
sexual offenses against minors but that he was not concerned because he just
wanted legal help from Burns.1
According to Santiago-Gonzalez, after being in
Burns’ cell for two to three hours, Burns started “acting funny,” and SantiagoGonzalez started cleaning the cell. At some point, Burns touched Santiago1. During senior inspector Ortiz’s investigation, he learned that Burns and
Santiago-Gonzalez were previously inmates at the Santa Rosa Correctional
Institution, and the inmates there were aware that Burns was in prison for child
- 7 -
Gonzalez’s buttocks underneath his boxer shorts, and Santiago-Gonzalez observed
that Burns’ penis was erect. Santiago-Gonzalez became irate.
Over the course of several minutes, Santiago-Gonzalez formed his plan to
attack Burns and ripped his bedsheet into multiple pieces. He said:
And I just, I wasn’t, like, what the fuck, you know what I
mean? And I said, I’m going to kill this man. I just blamed him. I
wanted to tie him, I want to knock him over. I tied him up and I’m
going to kill him and that’s what I did. Just punch him somewhere in
the eyes, somewhere in the head.
After Santiago-Gonzalez punched Burns in the head causing Burns to fall
down, he tied Burns up with the torn pieces of bedsheet. One piece of the sheet
was used to tie Burns’ hands together, another to tie his feet together, and another
to tie his bound hands and bound feet together. Then, Santiago-Gonzalez removed
a concealed homemade knife from inside a bandage that was tied to his leg. He
He [Burns] trying, he was, I just hold him down just to keep
him, I punched around, all around the neck and head. I tried to stab
him in the face, in the eye, heart, chest, back, and hand. I just black
out, I just, I had been on psyche [sic] medication for a long time, just
all my anger, everything, I just come out. I just black out. To be
honest with you, I just, I don’t know I just—
When questioned about his statement that he blacked out, SantiagoGonzalez responded: “Really, I react slow. You know what I mean? I take my
time and because I would like, what the fuck, and so now the mother fucker has to
- 8 -
die, he’s going to die. I just plain knocked him out and tie him up, and that’s what
I did.”
Burns’ Medical Treatment
Burns was initially treated for multiple stab wounds in the emergency unit at
RMC. Nurse Jeffrey Dukes, who helped treat Burns, observed Burns’ lifethreatening wounds. Burns told Dukes that he was going to die. Due to the nature
of his injuries, Burns was transported by EMS to the University of Florida Shands
Hospital (Shands).
Trauma surgeon Dr. Lawrence Lottenberg treated Burns upon his
January 10, 2014, transfer to Shands. Dr. Lottenberg recalled that Burns’ case was
memorable because of the numerous “stab wounds all over his neck, chest, and
abdomen. Succumbed numerous times in the emergency department and in the
operating room and yet managed to live through all of that.” Dr. Lottenberg
further stated: “Well, obviously this patient had wounds in his neck, both sides of
his chest, in his abdomen. He had all of the stab wounds in his back. This patient
was at an extreme level of pain and discomfort and required all of the aggressive
support with pain medicine that we could give him.”
- 9 -
Burns’ Death and Autopsy
Burns lived for nearly six months after the stabbing and died on July 3,
2014. Dr. William Hamilton, the District Eight Medical Examiner, conducted the
autopsy of Burns.
Dr. Hamilton identified a total of sixty-four stab wounds on Burns’ body but
conceded that number to be a minimum, not a maximum, because some wounds
may have healed during the time between the stabbing and Burns’ death. One of
the multiple wounds was a gaping 9.5 inch x 2.5 inch healing abdominal wound.
Weighing only 86 pounds at the time of his death, Burns suffered from
severe malnutrition as a result of the stab wounds, which Dr. Hamilton described
as “penetrating injuries of chest and abdomen which resulted in a profound loss of
blood and ischemic injury to internal organs, particularly to the intestinal canal.”
Dr. Hamilton also testified that Burns “had penetrating injuries into the central
nervous system with a resultant small stroke in the cerebellum and subsequent
infarction and necrosis of much of his spinal cord which left him quadriplegic.”
Dr. Hamilton did not identify any defensive wounds.
In November 2014, Santiago-Gonzalez was indicted for first-degree murder.
He subsequently expressed his intent to plead guilty as charged, and in June 2016,
the trial court sua sponte ordered two competency evaluations. Both experts
- 10 -
determined that Santiago-Gonzalez was competent to proceed and submitted
written reports to that effect.
The Guilty Plea
On August 15, 2016, Santiago-Gonzalez pleaded guilty to first-degree
murder. The trial court accepted the plea pursuant to the following plea colloquy:
COURT: Is it your intent that you wish to plead guilty or no contest to
this offense?
COURT: And is that because you’re guilty of the offense, sir?
COURT: Now, the attorneys can correct me if I’m wrong, but I
believe there’s only one count of first-degree murder. You understand
that that offense carries a maximum sentence punishable by death,
with the minimum sentence being life in prison without parole.
COURT: You understand in Florida that “life” means life.
COURT: Do you understand that the law means that you will not
be eligible for parole or early release?
COURT: Has anyone suggested to you that you will someday be
released from prison if you enter a plea to this charge?
- 11 -
COURT: Do you understand that, for a case in which the State is
seeking death, there’s two phases?
COURT: And do you understand that, if you enter a guilty plea here
today, that will take care of the first phase?
COURT: Do you understand the second phase requires either a trial
by myself or a trial with a jury?
COURT: And do you understand that you have a right to a jury trial
for the second phase, also known as the penalty phase?
COURT: And my understanding is today you wish to have the trial
only before myself for the penalty phase.
COURT: You understand that, if you change your mind as to phase
two, you need to let your attorney know that you now request to have
a jury trial as to the penalty phase.
COURT: The last time you were in court you told me you wanted to
plead guilty, and you wanted the death penalty; is that correct?
COURT: You understand that at the penalty phase, the State would
still have to put on evidence of the aggravators, and you understand I
would consider any evidence of mitigators.
- 12 -
COURT: That even if you maintain that you wish to seek the death
penalty, after hearing all the evidence, I still may come back with a
life sentence.
COURT: Knowing that, do you still wish to go forward with this
guilty plea?
COURT: You also understand, at the penalty phase, that you may end
up testifying under oath about the offense and that any answers that
you may give could be used against you at a later date.
COURT: Did your attorney go over with you what’s known as the
Jimmy Ryce warnings regarding there being a sexually violent or
sexually motivated crime in your history?
DEFENDANT: I don’t have any sexual charges.
COURT: I just wanted to make sure you’re aware that, if you did, that
you could be subject to involuntary civil commitment as a sexual
DEFENDANT: I understand.
COURT: So, Mr. Santiago, you’ve had the services of the public
defender’s office, which you’ve had Mr. Chipperfield, Mr. Goldman,
and Mr. Eisenmenger; is that correct?
COURT: Have you been satisfied with their services?
- 13 -
COURT: Is there anything you asked your attorney to do in this case
that he refused to do?
COURT: Do you feel that your attorneys have represented you to the
best of their ability?
COURT: Do you desire any additional time at this point to discuss
anything that I’ve spoken with you about the case so far with your
COURT: Your attorney mentioned to you that you have some pending
motions outstanding. One involves a potential speedy trial issue that,
if you were to win, would be dispositive, and the charges would be
dismissed against you.
COURT: You understand there’s also some additional motions
regarding the death penalty that are outstanding.
COURT: You understand, by entering your plea of guilty prior to
them being heard, you’re going to waive your right to be able to
appeal any order that I would give on those motions.
COURT: Do you understand that if, in the future, a higher court finds
the Florida death penalty statutes are unconstitutional, you would not
be allowed to withdraw your plea based on that fact.
- 14 -
COURT: You understand that by entering a plea that has a potential of
a life sentence with no eligibility of parole —
COURT: — you are forever waiving any future claim to withdraw
your plea in the event that the United States or the State of Florida
declared the death penalty unconstitutional.
COURT: Do you understand that?
COURT: Are you entering this plea freely and voluntarily?
COURT: Has anyone forced or pressured you into entering this plea?
COURT: Has anyone threatened you to get you to enter this plea?
COURT: Are you currently under the influence of any alcohol?
COURT: Has anyone promised you anything other than what we have
discussed which has made you enter this plea today?
COURT: With everything we’ve discussed up to this point, do you
still wish to enter this plea?
- 15 -
Defense counsel and the prosecutor then agreed to enter the competency
evaluation reports into evidence. The defense advised that it sought no further
testimony on the issue of competency. The Court continued:
All right, Mr. Santiago. The Court finds that there is a factual
basis for the plea and that Mr. Santiago has had an opportunity to
consult with an attorney, of whom he says he’s satisfied with, that he
is alert and completely cognizant as to what is occurring in court
today. The Court also finds the defendant is aware of all the rights he
is waiving by entering his guilty plea today. In addition, the Court
finds his pleas are freely and voluntarily made, and he understands the
consequences of his pleas. The Court also finds he is competent to
enter a plea to the charge. I, therefore, accept your plea of guilty to
the one count of first-degree murder. So next we have to schedule the
penalty phase. I’m also going to order a presentence investigation
The Penalty Phase
In February 2018, the trial court conducted a penalty phase in conjunction
with the Spencer hearing.2
During the penalty phase, the State sought to prove the
existence of four aggravating factors, and the defense offered evidence in support
of fifty-seven mitigating circumstances.
State’s Initial Penalty Phase Case
In addition to the evidence relating to the stabbing incident and subsequent
events that included Burns’ death, the State also introduced evidence of SantiagoGonzalez’s prior violent felony convictions. At the time of the stabbing, Santiago2. Spencer v. State, 615 So. 2d 688 (Fla. 1993).
- 16 -
Gonzalez was serving nine life sentences plus an additional 215 years’
imprisonment for multiple crimes, including attempted felony murder, kidnapping,
armed robbery, robbery, battery on a person over the age of 65, false
imprisonment, aggravated assault, and resisting arrest with violence.
Defense Penalty Phase Case
In mitigation, the defense presented evidence about Santiago-Gonzalez’s
upbringing in Puerto Rico, and it emphasized his having spent his formative years
in a dangerous residential area known for frequent gun violence and gang activity.
Santiago-Gonzalez, the eldest of eleven children, primarily lived with his
grandmother. However, he was frequently exposed to the unclean and unsafe
conditions of his mother’s nearby home. Drug users left matches and crack pipes
in the home, and on multiple occasions, Santiago-Gonzalez’s siblings started fires
with matches that were left lying around. At least eight of his siblings were
removed from the home by social services.
Witnesses testified that Santiago-Gonzalez was subjected to physical and
sexual violence. His grandfather beat him with belts and wires. One of his sisters
testified that she believed that Santiago-Gonzalez was sexually abused on a daily
basis by various men who frequented their home. She recalled Santiago-Gonzalez
complaining of anal pain, and she recalled seeing his bloody underwear.
Moreover, Santiago-Gonzalez’s brother told the defense mitigation specialist that
- 17 -
he beat up two boys after they admitted to sexually abusing Santiago-Gonzalez
while being housed together in a juvenile detention facility.
Evidence offered relating to Santiago-Gonzalez’s mental health revealed a
lengthy history, including behaviors such as banging his head against the wall as a
young child and engaging in substance abuse. He started taking Xanax at age five
or six and experimented with cocaine, marijuana, valium, and inhalant thinner at
age nine. Santiago-Gonzalez attempted suicide by hanging at age ten after being
released from a juvenile detention facility. Multiple family members, including
Santiago-Gonzalez’s father, engaged in various acts of self-harm.
The earliest psychological report obtained by the defense was generated in
1990 when Santiago-Gonzalez was nine years old. The report stated that SantiagoGonzalez was a victim of neglect, abuse, and environmental deprivation. A
neurology report also noted that he appeared to be malnourished and short for his
The defense presented two psychologists, Dr. Steven Gold and Dr. Michele
Quiroga. Dr. Gold opined that at the time of the stabbing, Santiago-Gonzalez
satisfied two statutory mitigating circumstances. He concluded that: (1) SantiagoGonzalez was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance, and
(2) Santiago-Gonzalez’s capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to
conform his conduct to the requirements of law was substantially impaired.
- 18 -
Dr. Gold also concluded that Santiago-Gonzalez’s home environment
exposed him to ten adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).3
Dr. Gold testified that
ACEs often have a permanent effect on functioning, can physically alter the brain,
and can, in individuals with four or more ACEs, shorten life expectancy by an
average of twenty years relative to someone who has none of the factors. Dr. Gold
testified that Santiago-Gonzalez suffers from substance abuse disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex PTSD, decreased ability to think ahead,
greater emotionality and impulsivity that may include explosive anger, changes in
consciousness, and forgetfulness. He also concluded that Santiago-Gonzalez meets
the criteria for bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, antisocial personality
disorder, and possibly borderline personality disorder. He observed that SantiagoGonzalez attempted suicide multiple times, possibly beginning before age nine,
and he believed that most of the suicide attempts were genuine and not efforts to
get attention.
3. Dr. Gold testified that Santiago-Gonzalez showed evidence of
(1) physical abuse, (2) verbal abuse, (3) physical neglect, (4) emotional neglect,
(5) domestic violence, (6) substance abuse, (7) family mental illness, (8) parental
figure loss, and (9) family members who were incarcerated. Dr. Gold concluded
that Santiago-Gonzalez satisfied nine out of ten ACEs and remarked that such a
result is “extremely unusual.” At Santiago-Gonzalez’s request, ACE number
(10), childhood sexual abuse, was not discussed in detail during Dr. Gold’s
testimony. However, Dr. Gold testified that evidence supported such a finding.
- 19 -
Dr. Michele Quiroga, a psychologist with a clinical neuropsychology
subspecialty, opined that Santiago-Gonzalez’s actual IQ score was 74 and
indicative of borderline intellectual functioning.
State’s Rebuttal
In rebuttal, the State offered the testimony of Dr. Tonia Werner, a
psychiatrist, and Dr. Michael Kerkov, a psychologist. Dr. Werner testified that
according to Santiago-Gonzalez, he tied up Burns and stabbed him after Burns
grabbed his rear end. Santiago-Gonzalez also said that he wanted Burns to suffer
and knew that Burns would die.
Dr. Werner diagnosed Santiago-Gonzalez with antisocial personality
disorder and mood disorder. However, she ruled out PTSD because he denied
being sexually abused and stated he did not remember being abused. Dr. Werner
also testified that Santiago-Gonzalez did not meet the full criteria of borderline
personality disorder but did exhibit self-injurious behavior consistent with that
diagnosis. She also contradicted Dr. Gold’s conclusions regarding the two
statutory mitigating circumstances presented by the defense.
Dr. Kerkov reviewed the raw data compiled by Dr. Quiroga related to
Santiago-Gonzalez’s cognitive functioning. He disputed the data on which Dr.
Quiroga relied and opined there was no indication that Santiago-Gonzalez had any
relevant cognitive impairment.
- 20 -
Conviction and Sentence
In April 2018, following the combined penalty phase and Spencer hearing,
Santiago-Gonzalez was adjudicated guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to
Aggravating Factors
The trial court found the existence of four aggravating factors and assigned
weight as follows: (1) the capital felony was committed by a person previously
convicted of a felony and under sentence of imprisonment (great weight); (2) prior
violent felony (great weight); (3) the capital felony was especially heinous,
atrocious, or cruel (HAC) (very great weight); and (4) the capital felony was a
homicide and was committed in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner
without any pretense of moral or legal justification (CCP) (very great weight).
Statutory Mitigation
The court found as follows with respect to the two statutory mitigating
circumstances argued by the defense: (1) the capital felony was committed while
the defendant was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance
(not proven); (2) the capacity of the defendant to appreciate the criminality of his
conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law was substantially
impaired (not proven).
- 21 -
Nonstatutory Mitigation
The trial court made the following findings with respect to fifty-five
nonstatutory mitigating circumstances, ranging from not proven to moderate
weight: (1) the defendant suffers from severe developmental trauma (not proven);
(2) impact of life in Luis Llorens Torres housing (moderate weight); (3) the
defendant was the product of statutory rape (very little weight); (4) the defendant’s
father was absent (very little weight); (5) the defendant’s mother was intellectually
disabled (very little weight); (6) the defendant’s mother’s impaired parenting skills
(very little weight); (7) the defendant’s mother abandoned him (little weight);
(8) the defendant’s grandfather was violent and abusive (very little weight); (9) the
defendant’s grandfather was a pedophile (very little weight); (10) the defendant’s
grandmother failed to protect children (very little weight); (11) the defendant’s
sexual abuse in the Llorens Community (moderate weight); (12) the defendant’s
early drug use (very little weight); (13) the defendant’s lack of childhood health
(very little weight); (14) the defendant’s mental illness as a child (very little
weight); (15) the home of the defendant’s mother (very little weight); (16) the
defendant’s mother was a prostitute (very little weight); (17) the defendant’s
siblings were neglected (very little weight); (18) the defendant was placed in
juvenile detention at age nine (moderate weight); (19) the defendant experienced
sexual abuse in juvenile detention (moderate weight); (20) the death of the
- 22 -
defendant’s grandmother (little weight); (21) the defendant’s placement with his
aunt Gloria as a child (not proven); (22) the defendant’s placement with his aunt
Maria as a child (not proven); (23) the defendant’s lack of education (very little
weight); (24) the defendant saved his brother’s life (very little weight); (25) the
defendant’s exposure to violent crimes (moderate weight); (26) the impact of the
loss of Santiago-Gonzalez’s protective cousin, nicknamed “Luis Llorens” (very
little weight); (27) the defendant’s opiate addiction as a child (very little weight);
(28) the defendant was a victim of violent crime (very little weight); (29) the death
of the defendant’s father (very little weight); (30) the defendant’s family history of
drug and alcohol abuse (some weight); (31) the defendant’s family history of being
victims of violent crimes (some weight); (32) the defendant’s family history of
criminal behavior (moderate weight); (33) the defendant’s family health issues
(very little weight); (34) the defendant’s family history of mental illness (moderate
weight); (35) the defendant’s family history of suicide (moderate weight); (36) the
defendant is bipolar (very little weight); (37) the defendant has clinical depression
(some weight); (38) the defendant has PTSD (very little weight); (39) the
defendant has complex PTSD (very little weight); (40) the defendant has
borderline personality disorder (very little weight); (41) the defendant has
antisocial personality disorder (very little weight); (42) the defendant’s Baker Act
hospitalizations (very little weight); (43) the defendant uses psychotropic
- 23 -
medication (very little weight); (44) the defendant has a history of suicide attempts
(very little weight); (45) the defendant has a history of self-harm (very little
weight); (46) the defendant is an artist (very little weight); (47) the defendant’s
lifetime of institutionalization (little weight); (48) the defendant was sexually
assaulted by victim Donald Burns (not proven); (49) the defendant was the victim
of a lewd act by victim Donald Burns (not proven); (50) the defendant pled to firstdegree murder (little weight); (51) the defendant waived a jury recommendation on
sentencing (little weight); (52) the defendant’s courtroom behavior (little weight);
(53) the love of Santiago-Gonzalez’s family (little weight); (54) other factors in
character, background, or life (not proven); (55) other factors in the circumstances
of the offense (not proven).
Santiago-Gonzalez raises ten issues in this direct appeal. Additionally, the
scope of our mandatory review requires us to determine whether his guilty plea
was knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily entered.
I. Competency
In determining whether a defendant is competent to proceed, the test is
whether the defendant has “sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer
with a reasonable degree of rational understanding—and whether he has a rational
as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” Hill v. State, 473
- 24 -
So. 2d 1253, 1257 (Fla. 1985) (quoting Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402, 402
(1960)). Santiago-Gonzalez argues that the trial court deprived him of due process
by accepting his guilty plea while he was incompetent. The scope of our review is
whether the trial court abused its discretion by (1) not conducting a competency
hearing, and (2) finding Santiago-Gonzalez competent to proceed.
In June 2016, given Santiago-Gonzalez’s desire to plead guilty to firstdegree murder against the advice of counsel, the trial court appointed two experts,
Dr. William Meadows and Dr. Almari Ginory, to conduct competency evaluations.
The court’s order began as follows:
THIS CAUSE is before the Court after the Defendant’s
announcement that he wants to plead guilty to a capital crime against
his attorney’s advice and the defense attorney’s suggestion that a
competency evaluation might be in order under Fla. R. Crim. P.
3.210(b), and, further, the Court having reasonable grounds to believe
that the defendant may be incompetent to proceed and that experts
should be appointed to examine and evaluate this defendant, it is
ORDERED AND ADJUDGED as follows: [language appointing
The order required that the experts’ written reports be submitted by July 22, 2016,
and also indicated that “[p]ursuant to Rule 3.210(b), Florida Rules of Criminal
Procedure, a hearing to determine the defendant’s mental condition shall be held
on (to be set by separate order) at 9:30 a.m. in the Circuit Court of Union County,
Union County Courthouse.” Subsequently, Dr. Ginory evaluated SantiagoGonzalez on July 6, 2016, and Dr. Meadows evaluated him on July 15, 2016.
- 25 -
Dr. Ginory and Dr. Meadows evaluated Santiago-Gonzalez’s competency
pursuant to the criteria set for in rule 3.211(a), Florida Rules of Criminal
Procedure. Both doctors concluded that Santiago-Gonzalez was competent to
proceed and set forth their findings in written reports.
Both competency reports discussed Santiago-Gonzalez’s extensive
psychiatric history which dates back to age nine and includes two psychiatric
hospitalizations while living in Puerto Rico; a history of treatment with
psychotropic medications; diagnoses of adjustment disorder, antisocial personality
disorder, depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and bipolar disorder with psychotic
features; and a history of self-harm and suicide attempts. Dr. Meadows also noted
that Santiago-Gonzalez sustained “head trauma due to a gunshot wound in 2002.
There were no indications of any persisting neurocognitive problems.”
Additionally, Dr. Meadows stated that in a different legal matter in 2010, he
evaluated Santiago-Gonzalez for competency and concluded that “Mr. SantiagoGonzalez was malingering psychotic disturbances and was not exhibiting active
psychiatric disturbances.”
While both competency reports mentioned that Santiago-Gonzalez engaged
in acts of self-harm, Dr. Ginory’s report also provided the following detail:
Medical History: He has had multiple episode[s] of self-injurious
behavior and suicide attempts since incarcerated. These attempts have
range[d] from cutting himself to swallowing objects. This has
resulted in over 40 procedures, numerous hospitalizations, a blood
- 26 -
clot in his right arm, and breathing difficulties. His most recent
surgery was three weeks prior. He reports the reason he harms
himself is over frustration. He gets angry and no way to express this
anger and so he harms himself. Only on a few of these instances was
he trying to kill himself.
Despite these behaviors that Dr. Ginory concluded were consistent with antisocial
personality disorder, he concluded that “Mr. Santiago does have an adequate
understanding of the proceeding and does have the ability to participate effectively
in his own defense. As such, I opine that Mr. Angel Santiago is competent to
proceed.” Similarly, Dr. Meadows agreed with the diagnosis of antisocial
personality disorder and also noted that Santiago-Gonzalez is not intellectually
disabled, his bipolar disorder was in remission, and no psychiatric disturbances
were exhibited in the examination. Dr. Meadows concluded:
Mr. Santiago-Gonzalez has the ability to appreciate these
charges and the nature of the judicial process. He also has the
capacity to consult with his attorney in a rational manner and he can
testify relevantly. Mr. Santiago-Gonzalez is capable of entering a plea
in this case and to appreciate the potential sanctions that he is facing.
Based on the information available and the defendant’s presentation, it
is the opinion of this examiner that Mr. Santiago-Gonzalez is
Competent to Proceed.
After receiving these reports, the trial court did not set a competency
hearing. Rather, Santiago-Gonzalez’s case proceeded to the change of plea hearing
on August 15, 2016. At that hearing, defense counsel did not challenge the
experts’ conclusions that Santiago-Gonzalez was competent to proceed. The
following discussion took place:
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THE COURT: All right. State, if you’ll give me a factual basis for the
MR. KRAMER [Prosecutor]: Your Honor, I will. Before we do that, I
would ask—before this hearing was held, the Court ordered two
psychological evaluations to determine Mr. Santiago’s competency to
enter this plea. Mr. Chipperfield and I have discussed allowing the
Court to receive the evaluations that were conducted and the written
reports of them as evidence in this case and ask the Court to make a
determination of his competence based upon those reports prior to the
Court accepting the plea. So if we could address that issue prior to me
giving you a factual basis and you accepting that factual basis and the
MR. CHIPPERFIELD [Defense Counsel]: Your Honor, Mr. Kramer
is right. We have reviewed those reports. Mr. Santiago is aware of
the contents. We’ve discussed that with him. And we don’t require
any additional testimony besides the reports, and we stipulate to the
reports being received in evidence on the issue of competency to enter
this plea. And based on our conversations with Mr. Santiago, he feels
the same way.
THE COURT: So you’re referring to Dr. Ginory’s report and Dr.
Meadows’s report; correct?
MR. KRAMER: That is correct, your Honor.
THE COURT: I’ve previously reviewed both reports, and both reports
are currently in the court file. Do you wish to mark additional copies
of the report for evidence?
MR. KRAMER: Your Honor, there has never, in my opinion, been a
suggestion that Mr. Santiago is incompetent; however, in an
abundance of caution, because the Court felt it necessary to have him
evaluated, we the State is [sic] asking that you receive them as
evidence of his competency and make a ruling that he is competent
today to enter this plea.
THE COURT: So when I was aware that Mr. Santiago wanted to enter
a plea and he wanted to request the death penalty, I was made aware
- 28 -
that he had a history of mental illness. Competency has never been an
issue in this case, but because of the seriousness of the offense, I went
ahead and ordered Mr. Santiago to be evaluated. And I based part of
that on the Ricardo Gill case, which I have reviewed the Supreme
Court order in that appeal. I don’t have the case in front of me for a
citation, but Judge Cates did something similar in that case. Since
competency is not at issue, I don’t think I have to have a formal
competency hearing. I find that there’s competent and substantial
evidence based on the doctors’ reports, my interaction with the
defendant, and the attorneys not expressing any concern regarding the
defendant’s competence. That evidence supports the finding that the
defendant, who has a history of mental illness, is competent to enter a
knowing, intelligent, and voluntary plea here today. Anything else
anybody wants to put on the record at this point regarding that issue?
MR. KRAMER: No, your Honor. That covers it from the State’s
MR. CHIPPERFIELD: Nothing from the defense, your Honor.
MR. KRAMER: Factual basis?
THE COURT: Yes, please.
After the factual basis was established, the trial court proceeded to conduct the plea
Given the trial court’s own observations, the detailed expert reports from Dr.
Meadows and Dr. Ginory, and the uncontested conclusions from both experts that
Santiago-Gonzalez was competent to proceed, the trial court did not abuse its
discretion in ruling as such. Moreover, the trial court did not abuse its discretion
by not conducting a competency hearing where (1) the court appointed two experts
to examine Santiago-Gonzalez and evaluate his competence to proceed, (2) both
- 29 -
experts concluded in written reports that Santiago-Gonzalez was competent, (3) the
trial court and the parties agreed that Santiago-Gonzalez was competent, and
(4) defense counsel stipulated to the admissibility of the experts’ reports and
declined to offer additional testimony on the subject.
In Fowler v. State, 255 So. 2d 513, 515 (Fla. 1971), this Court stated:
We concur that where the parties and the judge agree, the trial Court
may decide the issue of competency on the basis of the written reports
alone. But where . . . there are reasonable grounds to believe
defendant insane, and defense counsel requests a hearing, it is error
not to provide such a hearing.
In the present case, the parties and the trial court agreed that Santiago-Gonzalez
was competent to proceed. Both court-appointed experts agreed as to his
competency and set forth their conclusions in detailed written reports. Moreover,
defense counsel stipulated to the admissibility of the experts’ reports, did not
request a hearing, and did not want to offer additional testimony prior to the plea.
Under these circumstances, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in not
conducting a competency hearing, nor did it err in finding Santiago-Gonzalez
competent to proceed.
II. New Competency Evaluation
Santiago-Gonzalez also argues that the trial court erred in failing to order a
new competency evaluation before the penalty phase began. He asserts that
incidents that occurred in the months leading up to the penalty phase provided
- 30 -
reasonable grounds for the trial court to question his competency. However, the
State argues that the trial court was not obligated to reevaluate competency. We
agree that the trial court was not required to evaluate Santiago-Gonzalez’s
competency anew.
Santiago-Gonzalez argues that signs of his incompetency began as soon as
August 16, 2016, the day after the guilty plea. On that day, he wrote a letter to the
trial court accusing the mental health assistant warden of taking his mail and other
personal property. Additionally, he points to conduct in October 2016, when he
wrote another letter to the trial court, this time stating that he was not committing
acts of self-harm to kill himself but rather to obtain a discharge from the mental
health treatment facility where he resided. The letter read: “I’ve been hurting
myself because I have been trying to get discharge [sic] from this place (mental
health) and the mental health’s doctors been playing games, so, I do that to make
them spend a lot of money on me in hospitals. (Like a payback.).” He continued:
I am not crazy, I do not belong here! I am in my five senses
and I really want to get over with this case!! To be 100%
straight/honest with you. . . I won’t change my ways! Because I will
keep doing what I do, and killing people if I have to! Remember, I
already have a bunch of life sentences and 300 years to do in prison!
I don’t really have nothing to lose!! [A]nd I don’t care who I
hurt or kill anymore.
He further stated: “I have zero remorce [sic] for my crime and crimes. You know,
the State have not only one aggravator, but, a bunch of aggravators against me, to
- 31 -
make me elegible [sic] for a death sentence!! That’s the only way I will stop
stabbing people.”
On October 21, 2016, the trial court entered a commitment order for
continuing treatment because Santiago-Gonzalez refused voluntary treatment and
“poses a real and present threat of substantial harm to himself or others.” An
essential treatment order request completed in January 2017 found him “clinically
incompetent to consent to treatment.” The request noted a diagnosis of borderline
personality disorder and observed the following regarding recent incidents:
Mr. Santiago-Gonzalez continues to inflict serious harm on his body.
Pt was admitted to the self-harm observation unit on 10/1, 10/15, and
11/30. On 10/16, pt was transported to Jacksonville Memorial for
surgical evaluation to treat self-injury to the abdomen. On another
occasion, 11/8, pt was transported to Dr. Bennett for surgical care
following a 2 by 2” self-inflicted wound to his mid-abdomen. Finally
on 12/20, pt was transported to Jacksonville Memorial Hospital
following insertion of a pen into his abdomen. Pt recurrent self-injury
poses a risk of permanent disability or death.
The following summer, in July 2017, Santiago-Gonzalez had been recently
ordered into a mental health treatment facility for six months, during which time he
was to receive “court ordered medications to psychiatrically stabilize.” At a
July 17, 2017, motion hearing, defense counsel advised the court that SantiagoGonzalez was taking several psychotropic medications.
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Santiago-Gonzalez also states that he had an “outburst” during that hearing.
While discussing penalty phase scheduling, the following exchange with the trial
court occurred:
THE COURT: Okay. So knowing that, what I’m going to do is I’m
going to set this for a firm trial date starting February the 5th. Okay?
THE COURT: We are going to block off three weeks.
THE DEFENDANT: I’m not waiting until February, man. I don’t
want no jury. Fuck all this. Y’all lied to me, man. Y’all lying to me.
THE COURT: So, Mr. Santiago
THE DEFENDANT: They lied to me, Your Honor.
THE COURT: Mr. Santiago –
THE DEFENDANT: They told me it was in August, something like
that. I want to get done with this thing.
THE COURT: Mr. Santiago –
THE DEFENDANT: I don’t want to wait until February, Your Honor.
THE COURT: Let me talk to you a moment. Okay?
THE DEFENDANT: I bet they’re going to shoot me today, if you
need it, man.
THE COURT: Your attorneys have argued that you should be able to
go to trial in August. The State is the one that has asked for a
continuance. I’m the one who has decided to make the February term,
not your attorneys.
- 33 -
THE DEFENDANT: They told me if I pick the jury, I’m still going in
August. Now it’s not what it was.
THE DEFENDANT: See? I waive my penalty. I don’t want no jury
now, period. I don’t want to talk to them, period.
THE COURT: So, Mr. –
THE DEFENDANT: I ain’t crazy. I waive my penalty phase,
everything, everything here.
THE COURT: So, Mr. –
THE DEFENDANT: I want to waive everything right here. I’m not
going to change my mind no more.
THE COURT: So, Mr. Santiago, let me talk to you a moment.
Ultimately, you can decide to waive the jury if you want to. Either
way, the prosecutor says they’re not going to be ready before
February to argue that you should get the death penalty.
I’m the one – your attorneys can’t control me. I’m like an
umpire in a baseball game, okay? They can’t control what I decide.
I’ve decided that I’m going to give the State until February to make
their strongest argument that you can get the death penalty and give
your attorneys the strongest argument that they can make that you
shouldn’t get it.
Come February 5th I’m going to have a jury here, okay? You
can come in February 5th and start selecting that jury and go forward
with the jury trial. You can come in February 5th and say, “Judge, I
don’t want the jury anymore; I just want you, and I waive it.” Either
way, my intention would be to start the process. Okay?
So I’m going to have both ready to go. Either you just have a
judge, or you have a jury decide. It will be up to you and your
attorneys to discuss. Okay, sir?
All right. So February 5th will be the trial. Block out at least
three weeks on your calendar. And I would keep your calendar light
for the fourth week in case we go into the fourth week. Okay?
- 34 -
That being said, we need to get back at least for some case
management and some more time to argue additional motions.
Santiago-Gonzalez continued to be treated for mental illness and self-harm.
On December 13, 2017, a mental health treatment order noted a diagnosis of
bipolar disorder, mixed severe with psychotic features, and indicated: “Continues
to engage in self-injurious behaviors required multiple emergency air-flight to
trauma center, most recently as of 12/12/17.” There was no motion for a new
competency evaluation, and the penalty phase began on February 5, 2018. At the
beginning of the penalty phase, the trial court engaged in another detailed colloquy
with Santiago-Gonzalez to ensure a valid waiver of a penalty phase jury.
Ensuring a defendant’s competency is a continuing obligation of the court.
See Nowitzke v. State, 572 So. 2d 1346, 1349 (Fla. 1990). “Once a defendant is
declared competent, the trial court must still be receptive to revisiting the issue if
circumstances change. However, only if bona fide doubt is raised as to a
defendant’s mental capacity is the court required to conduct another competency
proceeding.” Hunter v. State, 660 So. 2d 244, 248 (Fla. 1995) (citing Pericola v.
State, 499 So. 2d 864, 867 (Fla. 1st DCA 1986)). Moreover, “[a] presumption of
competence attaches from a previous determination of competency to stand trial.”
Id. (citing Durocher v. Singletary, 623 So. 2d 482, 484 (Fla. 1993)).
- 35 -
Santiago-Gonzalez relies on his ongoing history of mental illness and selfinjurious behavior as a basis for concluding that he was incompetent to plead guilty
and to proceed to the penalty phase.
The State articulates several reasons why the trial court did not abuse its
discretion in refusing to order a new competency evaluation before the penalty
(1) Appellant was competent to proceed and enter a guilty plea,
despite his history of mental illness; (2) his defense team never
challenged or raised a concern about his competency; (3) Appellant
never acted unusually or inappropriately in the courtroom; (4) the trial
court had many opportunities to observe his demeanor and behavior;
(5) Appellant always responded intelligently and appropriately to the
trial court and his counsel; (6) throughout the proceedings, Appellant
exhibited rational thought; (7) no materially new information was
presented to or observed by the trial court; and (8) the trial court had
no reasonable basis or bona fide doubt as to Appellant’s competency.
The trial court did not err in proceeding to the penalty phase without ordering a
new competency evaluation.
III. Competency
Santiago-Gonzalez asserts that his case must be remanded to the trial court
for the entry of a written nunc pro tunc order finding him competent to proceed.
Although this Court has read Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.212(b) as
requiring issuance of a written order of competency, see Mullens v. State, 197 So.
3d 16, 38 (Fla. 2016); Dougherty v. State, 149 So. 3d 672, 679 (Fla. 2014), the
failure to enter a written order was not brought to the trial judge’s attention and
- 36 -
should therefore be remediable on appeal only if the failure constitutes
fundamental error. See, e.g., Calloway v. State, 210 So. 3d 1160, 1191 (Fla. 2017)
(“Unpreserved errors . . . are reviewed for fundamental error.”).
Given the trial
court’s oral competency finding in this case, which is fully supported by the
record, Santiago-Gonzalez has not demonstrated fundamental error and is therefore
not entitled to relief on this issue. See id. (“Fundamental error must amount to a
denial of due process, and consequently, should [only] be found to apply where
prejudice follows.”).5
IV. Proportionality
In determining whether Santiago-Gonzalez’s death sentence is a
proportionate penalty, this Court performs a comprehensive review of each case in
which the death sentence is imposed to determine whether the crime is among both
the most aggravated and the least mitigated of murders. Urbin v. State, 714 So. 2d
4. Although Calloway was specifically addressing unpreserved errors
“made in closing statements,” 210 So. 3d at 1191, a party claiming error in failing
to strictly follow the dictates of a procedural rule should not be held to a lesser
5. In Mullens, the Court did not address preservation, and therefore, did not
discuss the applicability of the fundamental error standard of review. Similarly, in
Dougherty, this Court did not address the fundamental error standard of review.
Although unpreserved, Dougherty’s claim that the trial court did not enter a written
order of competency was procedurally barred because Dougherty did not raise the
issue on direct appeal. 149 So. 3d at 676.
- 37 -
411, 416 (Fla. 1998) (citing State v. Dixon, 283 So. 2d 1, 7 (Fla. 1973)). This
review consists of a qualitative, rather than a quantitative analysis of the basis for
each aggravating and mitigating circumstance. Id. “Further, in a proportionality
analysis, this Court will accept the weight assigned by the trial court to the
aggravating and mitigating factors.” Hayward v. State, 24 So. 3d 17, 46 (Fla.
Santiago-Gonzalez argues that the death penalty is not a proportionate
sentence because he was sexually abused as a child and was sexually assaulted by
Burns before the stabbing. However, the trial court properly rejected the claim of
sexual assault by Burns as a mitigating circumstance where there was competent,
substantial evidence to do so. At the time that Santiago-Gonzalez stabbed Burns at
least sixty-four times, Burns was tied up and unable to defend himself. Moreover,
Santiago-Gonzalez asked to be placed in Burns’ cell and brought a concealed
homemade knife with him. “[F]inding or not finding a specific mitigating
circumstance applicable is within the trial court’s domain, and reversal is not
warranted simply because an appellant draws a different conclusion.” Cook v.
State, 542 So. 2d 964, 971 (Fla. 1989) (quoting Stano v. State, 460 So. 2d 890, 894
(Fla. 1984)). The trial court’s finding as a mitigating circumstance that SantiagoGonzalez was sexually abused as a child does not render his death sentence
- 38 -
Santiago-Gonzalez’s sentence is proportionate to other cases where the
defendant stabbed the victim multiple times. In Guardado v. State, 965 So. 2d
108, 119 (Fla. 2007), this Court upheld the death sentence as proportionate where
the trial court found five aggravators, including prior violent felony, HAC, and
CCP, no statutory mitigators, and nineteen nonstatutory mitigators. Id. at 112. In
Duest v. State, 855 So. 2d 33 (Fla. 2003), the victim was also stabbed multiple
times; the trial court found multiple aggravators including prior violent felony and
HAC, no statutory mitigators, and twelve nonstatutory mitigators. Id. at 47. This
Court in Duest noted that similar to the present case, there was no statutory
mitigation, there was strong “evidence of an intentional killing,” and there was a
defenseless victim who was stabbed in the back. Id. at 48.
Santiago-Gonzalez suggests that his case is similar to Morgan v. State, 639
So. 2d 6 (Fla. 1994). There, despite the defendant having stabbed the victim sixty
times, this Court concluded that the death penalty was disproportionate due to the
defendant’s age of sixteen years and the fact that he sniffed gasoline. Id. at 14.
However, as Santiago-Gonzalez concedes, he was not a teenager at the time of
Burns’ murder. Instead, he was a 33-year-old man with a lengthy prison record for
a host of violent crimes. Second, there were two aggravating factors in Morgan:
(1) murder during the course of a felony, and (2) HAC. In contrast, SantiagoGonzalez was sentenced to death upon a finding of four aggravating factors:
- 39 -
(1) murder committed while under sentence of imprisonment; (2) prior violent
felony, (3) HAC, and (4) CCP. Three of these factors (prior violent felony, HAC,
and CCP) have repeatedly been identified as among the weightiest in Florida’s
death penalty scheme. See Damas v. State, 260 So. 3d 200, 216 (Fla. 2018);
Larkins v. State, 739 So. 2d 90, 95 (Fla. 1999).
Similarly, Santiago-Gonzalez’s reliance on Nibert v. State, 574 So. 2d 1059
(Fla. 1990), is misplaced. In that case, this Court found the death sentence
disproportionate despite multiple stabbings and a finding of HAC. Id. at 1061.
However, Nibert is a single-aggravator case and is far less aggravated than
Santiago-Gonzalez’s case. Moreover, this Court concluded in Nibert that the trial
court improperly rejected evidence that Nibert was under extreme mental or
emotional disturbance and that his capacity to control his behavior was
substantially impaired. Id. at 1062-63. The serious aggravating factors far
outweigh the mitigating circumstances in this case, and Santiago-Gonzalez’s death
sentence is proportionate to other cases involving similar factual circumstances and
similar aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances.
V. Nexus Between Mitigation and the Murder
Santiago-Gonzalez argues that the trial court improperly required a nexus
between certain mitigating circumstances and the murder of Burns. However, this
argument has no merit.
- 40 -
“Although a trial court cannot require a nexus between the crime and
mitigating evidence, the court may place mitigating evidence in context.” Fletcher
v. State, 168 So. 3d 186, 219 (Fla. 2015) (citing Martin v. State, 107 So. 3d 281,
318 (Fla. 2012)). Santiago-Gonzalez is not entitled to relief.
VI. Elements of Capital Murder
Santiago-Gonzalez argues that the trial court’s finding that the aggravating
factors outweigh the mitigating circumstances is an “element” that must be found
beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the sentencing order did not make an express
finding “beyond a reasonable doubt,” he maintains that his death sentence is
invalid. This argument is without merit.
“[S]ubsequent to our decision in Hurst v. State [202 So. 3d 40 (Fla. 2016)],
we already have receded from the holding that the additional Hurst v. State
findings are elements.” State v. Poole, 45 Fla. L. Weekly S41, S47 (Fla. Jan. 23,
2020), clarified, 45 Fla. L. Weekly at S141 (Fla. Apr. 2, 2020). In Rogers v. State,
285 So. 3d 872, 885-86 (Fla. 2019), we clarified:
To the extent that in Perry v. State, 210 So. 3d 630, 633 (Fla.
2016), we suggested that Hurst v. State held that the sufficiency and
weight of the aggravating factors and the final recommendation of
death are elements that must be determined by the jury beyond a
reasonable doubt, we mischaracterized Hurst v. State, which did not
require that these determinations be made beyond a reasonable doubt.
Since Perry, in In re Standard Criminal Jury Instructions in Capital
Cases [244 So. 3d 172 (Fla. 2018] and Foster, we have implicitly
receded from its mischaracterization of Hurst v. State. We now do so
explicitly. Thus, these determinations are not subject to the beyond a
- 41 -
reasonable doubt standard of proof, and the trial court did not err in
instructing the jury.
The sentencing order sets forth the trial court’s conclusions that the State
proved four aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt, and “the aggravating
circumstances in this case far outweigh the mitigating circumstances.” There is no
deficiency in the trial court’s findings.
Santiago-Gonzalez challenges the trial court’s finding that the murder of
Burns was cold, calculated, and premeditated without pretense of moral or legal
justification (CCP).
In order to establish the CCP aggravator, the evidence must
show: (1) “the killing was the product of cool and calm reflection and
not an act prompted by emotional frenzy, panic, or a fit of rage
(cold)”; (2) “the defendant had a careful plan or prearranged design to
commit murder before the fatal incident (calculated)”; (3) “the
defendant exhibited heightened premeditation (premeditated)”;
(4) “the defendant had no pretense of moral or legal justification.”
Williams v. State, 37 So. 3d 187, 195 (Fla. 2010) (quoting Franklin v. State, 965
So. 2d 79, 98 (Fla. 2007)); see § 921.141(6)(i), Fla. Stat. (2018). The trial court’s
finding of this aggravating factor is reviewed for competent, substantial evidence.
See England v. State, 940 So. 2d 389, 403 (Fla. 2006). “A determination of
whether CCP is present is properly based on a consideration of the totality of the
circumstances.” Gill v. State, 14 So. 3d 946, 962 (Fla. 2009) (citing Hudson v.
- 42 -
State, 992 So. 2d 96, 116 (Fla. 2008)). In this case, competent, substantial
evidence supports the trial court’s finding.
On the day of the murder, Santiago-Gonzalez arranged to be placed in
Burns’ cell, ostensibly to obtain help with legal matters. Santiago-Gonzalez and
Burns were previously inmates in the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, and
Santiago-Gonzalez was aware that Burns was a convicted sex offender who was
imprisoned for committing acts against minors.
That evening, Santiago-Gonzalez tore a sheet into multiple pieces for the
purpose of restraining Burns. Then, Santiago-Gonzalez either forced Burns to be
tied up or convinced Burns to allow himself to be tied up. After restraining Burns,
Santiago-Gonzalez began repeatedly stabbing him with a homemade knife that he
snuck into the cell. These actions satisfy the definition of cold, calculated, and
Moreover, there was no pretense of moral or legal justification. Burns was
brutally stabbed while restrained and completely unable to defend himself. The
trial court’s finding of this aggravating factor is supported by competent,
substantial evidence.
- 43 -
Santiago-Gonzalez also argues that there was insufficient evidence to justify
the trial court’s finding that the murder of Burns was especially heinous, atrocious,
and cruel (HAC). This Court has said:
The HAC aggravator applies only in torturous murders—those
that evince extreme and outrageous depravity as exemplified either by
the desire to inflict a high degree of pain or utter indifference to or
enjoyment of the suffering of another. Kearse v. State, 662 So. 2d
677 (Fla. 1995); Cheshire v. State, 568 So. 2d 908 (Fla. 1990). The
crime must be conscienceless or pitiless and unnecessarily torturous to
the victim. Richardson v. State, 604 So. 2d 1107 (Fla. 1992); Hartley
v. State, 686 So. 2d 1316 (Fla. 1996).
Guzman v. State, 721 So. 2d 1155, 1159 (Fla. 1998).
“In determining whether the HAC factor was present, the focus should be
upon the victim’s perceptions of the circumstances as opposed to those of the
perpetrator.” Lynch v. State, 841 So. 2d 362, 369 (Fla. 2003). Moreover, “the
evidence must show that the victim was conscious and aware of impending death.”
Douglas v. State, 878 So. 2d 1246, 1261 (Fla. 2004) (citing Zakrzewski v. State,
717 So. 2d 488, 493 (Fla. 1998)).
In particular, Santiago-Gonzalez argues that there was insufficient evidence
that Burns suffered a sufficient amount of pain to warrant a finding of HAC, and
that Burns could not have had an imminent fear of death because he allowed
himself to be tied up. These arguments are completely without merit, and
competent, substantial evidence supports the trial court’s finding of HAC.
- 44 -
In concluding that the murder of Burns satisfied the HAC aggravator, the
trial court stated:
The evidence in this case reflects that the victim was stabbed at
least 64 times while conscious and with his hands and feet bound.
After the stabbing the victim remained conscious for several minutes,
in extreme pain, and acutely aware of the fatal nature of his wounds,
as evidenced by the hopelessness in his statements to Nurse Dukes
and Captain Ficken. Moreover, the Defendant refused to allow
correctional officers into the cell to help the victim until they began
recording the aftermath of the incident, thereby prolonging the
victim’s pain and suffering as he laid bound in a pool of his own
blood. Both during and after the merciless attack, the victim was
faced with the reality that his death was imminent. And, the
Defendant was totally indifferent to the victim’s suffering.
The fact that Santiago-Gonzalez stabbed Burns a minimum of sixty-four
times is highly relevant to this analysis. This Court has consistently concluded that
a finding of HAC was appropriate in cases where the victim was repeatedly
stabbed. See Guardado v. State, 965 So. 2d 108, 116-17 (Fla. 2007); Guzman, 721
So. 2d at 1159-60; Finney v. State, 660 So. 2d 674, 685 (Fla. 1995); Pittman v.
State, 646 So. 2d 167, 173 (Fla. 1994); Atwater v. State, 626 So. 2d 1325, 1329
(Fla. 1993). Moreover, the extremely brutal, repeated stabbing of Burns—while
Burns’ hands and feet were bound—satisfies the requirement of “extreme and
outrageous depravity as exemplified” by Santiago-Gonzalez’s “utter indifference
to or enjoyment of” Burns’ suffering. Guzman, 721 So. 2d at 1159 (citing Kearse,
662 So. 2d 677; Cheshire, 568 So. 2d 908).
- 45 -
Santiago-Gonzalez’s argument that the record does not demonstrate a
sufficient level of pain and knowledge of impending death is soundly refuted by
the record. The trial court’s conclusions are supported by the testimony of the
trauma surgeon who treated Burns, who testified that Burns experienced an
“extreme level of pain and discomfort and required all of the aggressive support
with pain medicine that we could give him.” Moreover, the record contains
testimony regarding Burns’ own statements after he sustained no fewer than sixtyfour stab wounds in the neck, chest, abdomen, and back. These statements
revealed Burns’ belief that he was going to die. Competent, substantial evidence
supports the trial court’s finding of HAC.
IX. Eligibility for the Death Penalty
Santiago-Gonzalez argues that his death sentence is invalid because he did
not plead to a crime that is eligible for the death penalty. He maintains that in
order to be sentenced to death, the State must specifically allege in the indictment
the aggravating factors that support a death sentence. This argument is without
As Santiago-Gonzalez conceded in his initial brief, this Court has previously
rejected this argument. In Pham v. State, 70 So. 3d 485, 496 (2011), this Court
observed that it “has repeatedly rejected the argument that aggravating
circumstances must be alleged in the indictment.” This Court explained: “A
- 46 -
defendant is not entitled to notice of every aggravator in the indictment because the
aggravators are clearly listed in the statutes. Id. (citing Lynch v. State, 841 So. 2d
362, 378 (Fla. 2003)).
X. Hurst v. Florida
Santiago-Gonzalez contends that in light of the United States Supreme
Court’s decision in Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616 (2016), his plea to first-degree
murder cannot constitutionally be punished by death. However, SantiagoGonzalez waived a penalty phase jury. “[A] defendant who has waived the right to
a penalty phase jury is not entitled to relief under Hurst v. Florida.” Davis v. State,
207 So. 3d 177, 212 (Fla. 2016).
XI. Sufficiency of the Evidence
This Court has a mandatory obligation to independently review the
sufficiency of the evidence underlying Santiago-Gonzalez’s conviction, and the
“customary review” evaluates whether the conviction is supported by competent,
substantial evidence. Ocha v. State, 826 So. 2d 956, 965 (Fla. 2002). However,
where a defendant pleads guilty and waives a jury trial, the relevant inquiry is not
whether there was competent, substantial evidence, but whether the defendant
knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily entered the guilty plea. See Tanzi v. State,
964 So. 2d 106, 121 (Fla. 2007). “Proper review requires this Court to scrutinize
the plea to ensure that the defendant was made aware of the consequences of his
- 47 -
plea, was apprised of the constitutional rights he was waiving, and pled guilty
voluntarily.” Ocha, 826 So. 2d at 965 (citing LeDuc v. State, 365 So. 2d 149, 150
(Fla. 1978)).
The trial court properly conducted a lengthy plea colloquy at the change of
plea hearing. This colloquy reflected Santiago-Gonzalez’s understanding of the
“consequences of his plea” and “the constitutional rights he was waiving as a
result.” Russ v. State, 73 So. 3d 178, 200 (Fla. 2011). Santiago-Gonzalez stated he
understood that by pleading guilty to the murder of Burns, he would be punished
by either death or life imprisonment. He also stated he understood that a guilty
plea would waive the first phase of trial, leaving only the matter of punishment to
be determined. The State provided a factual basis for the murder, to which the
defense conceded for the purpose of the guilty plea. The trial court’s detailed
questioning and Santiago-Gonzalez’s responses were sufficient to satisfy the
requirement of a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary plea.

Outcome: For these reasons, we affirm Santiago-Gonzalez’s conviction of first-degree
murder and sentence of death.
It is so ordered.

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