Articles Posted in Violent Crimes

A high-profile Pinellas County murder case recently got new life from the Florida Supreme Court. The decision is a good example of how seriously courts take murder charges, and also of the strict legal requirements that have to be met before a person can be sentenced to death.

business-law-1238207-300x200-300x200The defendant was charged in 2006 with the murder of two victims. He had worked as the couple’s personal fitness trainer and allegedly murdered the couple during a robbery in which he stole a safe containing $88,000 in cash. The couple was stabbed to death, and their home was set on fire after the robbery. A jury trial took place in 2010, at the close of which the jury convicted the defendant on two counts of first-degree murder. During a separate penalty phase of the trial, the 12-member jury voted 7-5 in favor of recommending the death sentence. Although the defendant’s lawyers presented evidence showing that he suffered from extreme mental and emotional impairments, the judge declined to mitigate his sentence. Instead, the judge sentenced the defendant to death.

The defendant later appealed the sentence to the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that putting him to death under the circumstances was unconstitutional. The state’s highest court agreed, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida. In that case, the justices said that a jury, rather than a judge, has to find every fact necessary to impose a death sentence. A mere recommendation is not enough. When the Hurst case was sent from the U.S. Supreme Court to the Florida Supreme Court, the state justices added that the jury must vote unanimously in order to impose a death sentence.

Continue Reading

In a Florida kidnapping case, the issue on appeal was whether the defendant’s kidnapping convictions reflected Florida confinement law. The defendant argued that his actions did not constitute kidnapping because the Park at Nightmovements of his victims were slight and inconsequential and did not assist the commission of another crime.

The defendant allegedly approached the victims at a neighborhood park. There was a group of five men and two women hanging out at night. When the group was leaving the park, the defendant approached them and brandished a handgun. He ordered all of the victims on the ground and took personal items, including a cell phone and a wallet.

The defendant ordered the two women to disrobe. The defendant then brought them behind a large tree. He then proceeded to sexually assault one of the women. Eventually, one of the victims yelled for everyone to run, and everyone took off in different directions.

Continue Reading

CourthouseThe United States Constitution grants criminal defendants the right not to testify in their trial. See U.S. Const., Amend. V. From this right, the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that commenting in such a way that can be interpreted to cast light on the defendant’s failure to testify is an error and strongly discouraged. In a recent case, the Third District Court of Appeals heard a defendant’s appeal on this issue. The defendant was appealing from a Florida manslaughter conviction in which he was sentenced to 30 years in state prison, followed by 10 years’ probation.

The defendant argued on appeal that the State made an improper comment during its closing argument regarding the defendant’s decision not to testify at trial. Specifically, the prosecution said that he did not testify because he engaged in potentially incriminating conduct. However, the court took a more expansive view of the statements made, based on the trial transcript. The key distinction that the prosecution made was not to point out why the defendant was not testifying but instead to argue why the defendant was on trial.

The defendant’s counsel, during her closing argument, argued that the State was improperly relying upon innocent conduct to prove its case, such as the fact that he cut his dreadlocks. The defendant’s position at trial was that since this conduct was not illegal, it should not be used as evidence of guilt. The appeals court, therefore, read the prosecution’s closing argument as responding to the defense’s argument.

Continue Reading

Thumb PrintCriminal cases require prosecutors to present evidence in order to obtain a conviction. Evidence generally comes in two varieties:  direct and circumstantial. Examples of direct evidence include eyewitnesses to a crime or a ballistics report stating that the defendant’s gun fired the bullet that killed the victim. Circumstantial evidence, by contrast, consists of a fact or set of facts that, if proven, will support the creation of an inference that the matter asserted is true. Florida homicide cases can be proven by using direct or circumstantial evidence. A November 2017 decision analyzed whether there was enough circumstantial evidence to affirm a first-degree murder conviction.

Generally, Florida courts of appeals review convictions from the viewpoint most favorable to the prosecution, such that a jury could find a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. If, however, a murder conviction is predicated on circumstantial evidence, and there isn’t a confession, Florida courts apply an altered standard of review. The conviction should be affirmed if the prosecution failed to provide evidence that the jury can use to rule out all reasonable hypotheses except for guilt.

The court then recounted all of the examples of circumstantial evidence presented at trial. These included testimony that the victim, before going missing, was last seen with the defendant. Also, a neighbor remembered a container adjacent to the defendant’s vehicle prior to the time that the victim disappeared. The victim was later found dead inside a barrel near a canal. In addition, another witness testified that he remembered a barrel in the defendant’s apartment. When the investigation led to the defendant’s home, he was sweating and acted nervous. He also had lacerations on his arm and fingers that indicated some sort of struggle.

Continue Reading

Florida violent crimes are codified by statute. As a result, sometimes courts have to engage in the practice of statutory interpretation to determine which crime is available for prosecution. The answer is not always obvious. For instance, the Florida First District Court of Appeals recently analyzed whether a car could be considered a weapon under the felony reclassification statute in a Florida homicide case.

Weapons

The defendant spent an evening in January at a bar, drinking and watching basketball. At some point, the defendant and the victim got into an altercation at the bar, and the defendant was escorted out of the bar by its staff. The victim later left the bar with a friend, who testified that she saw the defendant’s car parked in a shopping center across the street from the victim’s apartment complex. The witness testified that the car flashed its light. The victim pulled into the parking lot, exited his car, and rushed toward the vehicle. The defendant advanced his vehicle and struck the victim, who died of head injuries on the following day. The defendant was apprehended two weeks later in Chicago. At trial, the jury found the defendant guilty of manslaughter with a weapon. On appeal, the defendant argued that an automobile was not a “weapon” within the statutory meaning of that word.

Florida Statutes Section 775.087(1) enhances the degree of a felony to a greater degree when the commission of the felony occurred while the defendant used a weapon. The statute does not provide a definition of “weapon.” Therefore, principles of statutory interpretation require the court to turn to the common or ordinary meaning of the word.

Continue Reading