Florida Supreme Court Rejects Attorney’s Bid to Continue Representing Death Penalty Defendant – Gill v. State of Florida

October 3, 2012 by David S. Seltzer

Anyone accused of a serious crime needs a defense attorney, but death penalty defendants have everything at stake. That’s why the defense attorney in Gill v. State, a recent Florida Supreme Court decision, objected when defendant Ricardo Gill suddenly fired him and waived postconviction court proceedings. Attorney D. Todd Doss was appointed to represent Gill in postconviction proceedings, but Gill fired him after a court hearing to ensure that Gill was competent to do so. Doss appealed that decision to the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that Gill was not competent to waive his rights and that his hearings were not constitutionally adequate. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the waiver, finding no problems with Gill’s hearings.

The opinion doesn’t say why Gill was sentenced to death; his conviction was affirmed on appeal in 2009. Shortly after Doss was appointed to represent Gill, Gill moved to discharge Doss and waive postconviction proceedings. The lower court held a combined competency, Durocher and Faretta hearing and ultimately agreed to discharge Doss. Both Doss and Gill filed notices of appeal, but only Doss filed a brief in the case. Doss’s brief contends that the hearing was unfair because one expert witness at the competency hearing was unfamiliar with competency hearings, and that both experts were denied a chance to review Gill’s medical and disciplinary records from the prisons, because Gill preferred to keep them confidential. Doss also alleged that Gill behaved bizarrely—no details were provided—and had told the experts he had not researched appellate procedure before waiving the postconviction proceedings.

The Florida Supreme Court rejected this appeal. For starters, it noted that the claim was not properly preserved for appellate review, and thus was not properly before the court to begin with. In addition, it said, the trial court was correct to admit the first expert, who had testified at competency hearings in the past; appeals courts may reverse decisions to admit expert witnesses only on a clear showing of error. It also ruled that the trial court did not err when it excluded the medical and disciplinary records; the high court noted that this was not preserved for appeal and also was done at Gill’s direction. Finally, it disagreed that Gill was not competent to waive his rights, noting that his competency was evaluated in 2005 and that decision was affirmed in an earlier trip to the Florida Supreme Court. Thus, it upheld the dismissal of Doss.

The courts have clearly spoken, but I sympathize with Doss. When a defendant faces murder charges or the death penalty (not an uncommon sentence for those convicted of murder), the system should be very sure he or she is competent before permitting him or her to dismiss a defense attorney. To do anything else would run the risk of sentencing someone to death without an adequate defense, in a system that is often stacked against even those defendants who are clearly competent. For that reason, the justice system permits numerous proceedings for those sentenced to death, including the postconviction proceedings at issue here. Defendants who are charged with very serious crimes like sexual assault, murder, armed robbery and felony assault should get the help of an experienced defense lawyer as early in the process as they can.

If you’re charged with a crime in South Florida, don’t hesitate to call Seltzer Law, P.A., to discuss your rights and your legal options. We answer calls 24 hours a day and seven days a week at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us a message online.

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