Jury instructions are a critical part of any criminal case. They focus the attention of the jury on the factual determinations that they have to make in order to find someone guilty of a crime. A recent case out of Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal is a good example of just how big an impact bad instructions can have, as well as some of the ways courts try to remedy an instructions mistake.A defendant was charged with exploiting an elderly person or disabled adult in 2009 after he and his girlfriend allegedly took advantage of his 79-year-old aunt. The woman had an eighth grade education and had been living in her home for more than 40 years when the defendant and his girlfriend moved in. He convinced his aunt to take out a reverse mortgage on the property, according to the court. She obtained more than $150,000 as a result of the transaction, which the defendant then allegedly used to buy himself two luxury cars. Prosecutors presented evidence showing that the aunt suffered from dementia at the time and was unable to understand or consent to the reverse mortgage transaction.
At the time, state law made it a crime for a person in a position of confidence or trust to take advantage of an elderly or disabled person by knowingly deceiving or intimidating them. The law also made it a crime if the person simply knew or should have known that the victim lacked the capacity to consent. Although prosecutors proceeded on the second theory, the court didn’t tell the jury that prosecutors were required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew or should have known that his aunt couldn’t consent. In fact, the judge didn’t mention the “knew or should have known” element at all. The defendant was eventually convicted.