Articles Posted in Violent Crime

Witness testimony can make or break a criminal case, whether it’s jay walking or manslaughter. In a recent case out of Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal, the court looked at a supposed jailhouse confession that seemed to exonerate a man who had already been convicted of murder.

Prison CellsThe defendant was convicted for his alleged role in the killing of another man in Polk County. The victim was staying with his girlfriend and her family in November 2012 when he disappeared. The victim, who left the home after an argument with his girlfriend, was found dead in a nearby orange grove. He had a headshot wound in the back of the head, but police officers did not find a gun and weren’t able to recover any fingerprints from the site.

The defendant was later charged with the murder. Prosecutors alleged that he killed the victim with the help of the brother of the victim’s girlfriend. A friend of the victim, who was involved in a marijuana dealing operation with him, testified that the defendant told him that the defendant and the brother committed the murder.

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Florida law is often strict when it comes to doling out punishments for crimes, even when the person charged is a juvenile. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has established some limits on harsh sentencing for people under the age of 18, states still have a lot of leeway to put juveniles behind bars for long stretches of time. Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal recently explained that judges have the power to impose mandatory minimum sentences on juvenile offenders.

Gun and MoneyMr. Young was 17 years old when he was charged with armed robbery, a Florida gun crime that’s punishable by up to life in prison. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years behind bars, the mandatory minimum punishment under state law. Young later appealed the sentence, arguing that it violated the U.S. Constitution. Young’s attorneys told the court that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment bars the state from imposing mandatory minimum sentences. That’s because those sentences don’t allow judges to consider individual circumstances or to take into account that juveniles may have more capacity for reform, they said.

The Fifth District disagreed. “The court clearly allowed for the consideration of Young’s age in fashioning its sentence, as evidenced by Young receiving the lowest permissible sentence for his crime,” the court said. “Although we acknowledge that the 10-year mandatory minimum sentence required here does limit, to some extent, the discretion of a trial court in sentencing a juvenile offender, we do not view this modest limitation as a constitutional infirmity.”

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BurglaryAt trial, the prosecution is required to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, all of the elements of the crime charged against the defendant. A Fourth District Court of Appeals decision, J.S., a Child v. State of Florida, analyzed whether the prosecution had met its burden of proof in convicting a juvenile of a Florida assault crime.

In the early morning hours, the victim went outside to investigate a noise. He saw one of the trucks that was part of his auto-repair business being touched by the defendant. As the victim approached the truck, he saw a second person at another vehicle. The burglar approached, and the victim pulled out his concealed handgun, which scared off one of the burglars. He approached the defendant, who was lying on the ground and appeared to be moving his hand toward something. The victim removed what appeared to be a pellet gun from the defendant’s waist. He held the defendant on the ground at gun point until the police arrived.

The defendant was charged with burglary with assault or battery while armed. The trial court found the defendant delinquent on the charge. The juvenile defendant appealed and argued that the conviction of burglary of conveyance with assault while armed should be reversed.

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Dollar BillsFlorida’s Stand Your Ground law gives criminal defendants immunity against prosecution if they meet the following three elements:  the use of deadly force was (i) reasonable because deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to the defendant or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony; (ii) used while the defendant was not engaged in a criminal activity; and (iii) used in a place where the defendant had a right to be. A recent Florida gun crime case, decided on November 15, 2017, considered the second element, whether the defendant was engaged in a criminal activity at the time the alleged self-defense occurred.

The defendant testified at an evidentiary motion to dismiss the second-degree murder charges against him that on the day of the shooting, he took a few hundred dollars out of his pocket when the eventual victim told him that she shouldn’t walk around with that amount of cash because of the reputation of the neighborhood. The defendant informed the eventual victim that he had “protection.” The defendant then continued talking with his friends. The defendant was then attacked from behind and hit on the left side of his face and knocked up against a car. The eventual victim reached for the defendant’s side and made contact with the defendant’s gun. The defendant then grabbed his gun and pulled the trigger. The victim did not fall to the ground. They both ran in different directions, although the victim eventually died of his gunshot wounds.

The defendant presented evidence at a pre-trial hearing that corroborated his account of the event. The trial court ruled that as a result, the defendant was entitled to immunity and dismissed the second-degree murder charge against the defendant. The State appealed because the court did not discuss in the written order whether the defendant was engaged in a criminal activity at the time of the shooting, even though both the prosecutor and defense counsel argued this issue at the hearing.

In a recent Tampa gun crime case, a woman and her son met who they thought were potential buyers of their vehicle in a Tampa-area parking lot. The plan was to meet in person and negotiate the car transaction with the two prospective buyers, two teenagers. When everyone arrived at the designated location, the teens pulled firearms and demanded that her son give up the keys to the vehicle. The mother gave up the keys, but as they were driving away, she fired a shot that hit one of the teenagers. He was later pronounced dead from the gunshot wound at the hospital.

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The surviving teen is being charged with second-degree murder and armed robbery. Under Florida felony murder laws, the alleged carjacker, as a co-conspirator, can be charged under the felony murder statute, if he participated in a felony and another person died in the commission of the felony.

Under these circumstances, the prosecution might allege that the driver of the vehicle was in the act of committing armed robbery when he was driving away and his co-conspirator was killed. The felony murder statute applies when another “human being is killed” and does not require that the person who died not be a co-conspirator.

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In criminal trials, the jury is asked to determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Jury instructions help the jurors make their decision within the framework of existing laws, and the criminal defendant is entitled to have the jury instructed in his or her theory of defense, assuming there is evidence to support this theory. A failure to properly instruct the jury may constitute a reversible error in a Florida theft crime case.

Apartment Complex
The defendant and the alleged victim were neighbors in a four-unit duplex, where they shared a backyard area. One night, their dogs fought in the shared backyard, which led to a fight between the defendant and his neighbor. Although there was differing testimony as to what actually occurred, the defendant argued that his neighbor hit him, so he hit the neighbor in self-defense. The fight started in the neighbor’s doorway, and the defendant said that in the course of the fight, he somehow ended up inside the neighbor’s apartment. The defendant was charged with burglary and misdemeanor battery as a result of the altercation. During the jury charge conference, the defendant’s attorney requested that the jury receive a special instruction that self-defense was an available defense to the burglary charge, just as it was a defense to the battery charge. The trial court declined to give this instruction, and following his conviction, the defendant appealed the trial court’s ruling.

The appeals court considered whether the trial court committed a reversible error by ruling that self-defense was not an available defense for the burglary charge. The appeals court noted that the facts of the case suggested that the charges of battery and burglary were inextricably linked and almost functioned as a single charge. In other words, the defendant’s theory was that the burglary and the battery were part of the same encounter with his neighbor. His self-defense claim started outside the neighbor’s apartment and continued unabated when the fighting traveled into the neighbor’s apartment, according to court documents.

Prosecutors are tasked with proving a defendant’s criminal intent for certain crimes. Often, Florida violent crimes with an intent component also carry a harsher sentence. For instance, aggravated battery requires proof of a specific intent to cause great bodily harm, whereas felony battery does not. In a recent Florida appeals court decision, the court upheld the jury’s finding of aggravated battery because the evidence showed an intent to not only strike a bar owner but severely injure him as well.

Late at night, the defendant arrived at a South Beach bar and began harassing a female bar patron. After the woman complained about the defendant’s behavior, the bar manager spoke to the defendant, who agreed to stop harassing the female patron. The defendant did not stop, however, and a security guard escorted the defendant outside. The defendant became enraged; he spit in the security guard’s face, stated that he would not leave, and threatened to kill the bar manager and the security guard. The bar manager called law enforcement after the defendant was escorted from the bar. The bar manager then stepped outside and was punched in the head by the defendant. When the punch connected, it knocked the bar manager unconscious. The bar manager fell backwards and hit his head on the ground. Medical expert testimony at trial indicated that the bar manager suffered brain damage as a result of the punch.

The defendant appealed the aggravated battery conviction because he argued that he did not have the requisite intent as required under Florida law. Florida statute section 784.045 provides that “[a] person commits aggravated battery who, in committing battery . . . intentionally or knowingly causes great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement.”

Football SnapThe Florida legislature recently passed an expanded version of Florida Statute section 776.032, or as it’s more commonly known, the Florida stand-your-ground law. The revised law shifts the burden of proof from the defendant, asserting the stand-your-ground defense, to the prosecution. Specifically, when a defendant raises a stand-your-ground defense, the prosecution is required to rebut the defendant’s prima facie immunity claim by clear and convincing evidence. Traditionally, the defendant is required to prove the elements of the affirmative defense as opposed to merely stating a prima facie claim.

This new law went into effect in June, so a Tampa murder trial related to the death of a former University of South Florida football player is one of the first to apply the new law.

The defendant was charged with murder after a fight broke out in the early morning hours outside a nightclub in Ybor City. He is accused of stabbing an ex-USF player to death with a knife during the altercation. He made his prima facie case for self-defense primarily based on the fact that the ex-USF player was physically larger than him. In fact, the ex-USF player was eight inches taller and 150 pounds heavier than the defendant.

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