Florida Manslaughter Conviction Upheld as Appeals Court Rules that Prosecution Did Not Improperly Comment on Defendant Not Testifying

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.

The appeals court further ruled that even if the trial court erred in overruling the defendant’s initial objection, the error was harmless. The prosecution corrected its statement regarding the defendant’s decision not to take the stand. In other words, the prosecution’s statement that the defendant was “sitting here” because of the crime he committed was sufficiently clear so that the jury would not interpret such a statement as commenting on the defendant’s failure to testify.

The appeals court affirmed the jury’s manslaughter conviction and ruled that any error in overruling the initial objection of the defendant was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Law enforcement might seek to prosecute actions under a manslaughter charge. The result of a conviction has drastic negative effects for a person’s future goals and desires. That is a steep price to pay for an act that likely was not intended to result in another person’s death. Clearwater homicide defense attorney Will Hanlon at Hanlon Law can fight hard to protect your future, relying on his years of courtroom experience. Call Hanlon Law at 727-897-5413 or reach us via our online form for an appointment.

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Fourth District Court of Appeals Affirms Kidnapping Conviction, Analyzing What Constitutes a “Confinement Crime” Under Florida Kidnapping Law, Clearwater & St. Petersburg Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 21, 2017

Florida Senate Introduces Proposed Good Samaritan Law, Criminalizing Social Media Activity Under Certain Circumstances, Clearwater & St. Petersburg Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 16, 2017

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