William Gregory, 30, was sentenced to death on April 14, 2011, for the murder of his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend as the couple slept in a house in Flagler Beach on August 21, 2007. On Thursday, a unanimous Florida Supreme Court rejected Gregory’s appeal.
A jury had recommended Gregory be sentenced to death by a 7-5 vote. In any other state, Gregory would not have been sentenced to death as a result. Florida is one of only two states in the nation where a unanimous verdict for death is not required, even though state law requires verdicts for so much as shoplifting or marijuana possession to be unanimous for conviction. In Florida, a simple majority of jurors suffices for a death sentence recommendation. In Alabama, at least 10 of 12 jurors must recommend death for a capital sentence to be imposed.
Gregory raised five issues on appeal: That the trial court erred in denying his motion to disqualify the judge based on statements the judge made during a pretrial hearing; that the trial court erred in admitting into evidence threatening statements directed toward the victims made eight months before the murders by Gregory to a co-worker; that the court erred in admitting testimony from a witness who could not identify Gregory in court; that the court erred in admitting testimony about a statement Gregory made to one of the victims; and that the court erred in instructing the jury on and in finding that the murders were carried out with a cold, calculated and premeditated manner.
The most serious issue was a statement by Volusia County Circuit Judge William A. Parsons during a pre-trial hearing about the admissibility of certain evidence the state wanted to introduce.
Gregory argued that a statement he made eight months before the murders about killing “both of them” if his girlfriend ever cheated on him was too remote to be relevant. In response to this argument, Parsons stated: “My reaction here is that this is not remote at all, that it’s –while there is some time delay — and if he is, in fact, the one who committed the murder, it is quite prophetic in terms of what’s going to happen. So, you know, we’re not talking about ten years or five years or three years. We’re talking about just months before the breakup and then the alleged murder happened later on. Now, whether they can prove that he did this or not, that’s another matter, but it seems to me they are entitled to the benefit of trying to prove all the elements of the crime when one is premeditation, and this goes to that issue. So I’m going to . . . allow it.”
Gregory, according to court papers, argued that Parson’s use of the word “prophetic” to describe the statement indicates that the judge had already determined that Gregory was guilty.
The Supreme Court did not buy the argument.
“We conclude that this argument is unavailing because Gregory focuses on one word out of context without including the trial judge’s actual statement,” Chief Justice Ricky Polston wrote. “When read as a whole, it is clear that the judge used the word “prophetic” in relation to the State’s argument that Gregory’s statement was relevant to the issue of premeditation.”
The second issue was a related matter of bias. Gregory claimed that the judge, making a motion to have a recording played, said hearing Skyler’s voice in a recording would be “refreshing,” because she “has now been silenced.” In fact, Polston wrote, the word “refreshing” was never used. Instead, the trial judge stated that he found it “quite interesting” that the jury would be able to hear the victim’s voice. “The judge did not make any reference to Gregory being the one who ‘silenced’ the victim, nor did he comment on Gregory’s guilt or innocence,” Polston wrote. And the remarks were not made before a jury. Gregory argued that when the remarks were published in the press, they could have created a public prejudice against him. “However,” Polston continued, “Gregory raises no challenge to jury selection or composition or to pretrial publicity, and he provides no factual basis beyond the comments and news report attached to the motion itself to substantiate these claims.”
The three other challenges to his sentence Gregory raised related to the guilt phase of the trial, including the eight-month-old statement Gregory had made, which was used to substantiate a charge of premeditation. But precedent indicates that “there is no bright-line rule regarding the point at which a prior statement is so remote as to become irrelevant,” the court ruled. Gregory, in his appeal had relied on a Nevada case that did give “less relevance” to statements made in the remote past—but those statements in that case had been made six and 10 years before the murder under review.
Gregory also objected to testimony by an inmate who had been in jail with him, because the inmate never identified him in court. But the inmate had provided numerous other positive identifications of Gregory. His final objection was the hearsay use of statements made by the victim, and later reported by two state witnesses during trial. The victim, Daniel Dyer, had been either “I want to personally thank you for ruining my life,” or “I personally want to thank you for ruining my family.”
“We conclude that error, if any, in the admission of this testimony was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” Polston wrote, because “there is no reasonable possibility that any error in the admission of this testimony affected either the verdict of guilt or the imposition of the death penalty in this case.”
Skyler Dawn Meekins and Gregory had had a child together, Kyla, from a relationship that ended in June 2007. They both continued to raise the child after that, at least when Gregory was not in jail: by the time he committed the murders, he was a habitual jail offender. He was in jail when the relationship ended. According to court records, he’d call Skyler’s brother to check on her whereabouts, asking him to get into her email account and find out what other men she might be communicating with. Gregory told Skyler’s brother that on one occasion he’d gone into the account himself and “erased . . . all the dudes she had on there.”
“According to an individual who was incarcerated with Gregory during the period in which these calls were made, Gregory was jealous of Skyler, did not like the people she was spending time with, and stated that if he ever caught Skyler “cheating” on him, ‘he was going to blow her . . . head off,’” the appeal opinion relates. He would on occasion have conversations with Skyler about their child.
Skyler began dating a new boyfriend, Daniel Arthur Dyer, on July 4, 2007, which did not dissuade Gregory from calling and visiting frequently, usually uninvited.
The day before the murder—Gregory had been out of jail on probation—he test-fired a gun, smoked marijuana and crack, took some pills, and called Skyler—obsessively, beginning at 10:19 p.m. He knew where she lived (with her grandparents, off John Anderson Highway). He was familiar with the house. He knew where her grandfather kept a shotgun that took practice to handle and even load. He would later tell an inmate in jail that he used a 12-gauge shotgun instead of a pistol because he figured there would be less gunpowder residue. He shot Skyler and Dyer, who was 22, in the head as they slept. Kyla, 1 at the time, was in a neraby room.
Gregory then jumped in a pool, presumably to wash off the residue (as he would also tell an inmate), and went home. He called authorities later that day to report that he had violated his probation by injecting drugs.
He was tried and convicted for first-degree murder, burglary, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
The trial court had given some, but not any deciding, weight to the fact that Gregory had committed the murders under “the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance,” and gave only “slight weight” to Gregory’s childhood traumas, which included witnessing his sister getting raped and his growing up without a father.
The Supreme Court upheld the conviction on all counts.
“I’m thrilled,” Assistant State Attorney Jacquelyn Roys, who had prosecuted the case in a Volusia courtroom (where the case had been moved), told the News-Journal’s Frank Fernandez. “Throughout the trial I had faith in the trial court’s ruling, but it’s nice to see that they were upheld by the Supreme Court.”
Gregory’s appeals have not been exhausted. He may still appeal through federal court. He is imprisoned at the Florida State Prison at Starke, where all of the state’s 405 death row inmates are incarcerated.