Florida Appeals Court Orders New Trial for Man Convicted of Robbery

robberyCourts in the United States will look very closely at allegations of prejudice during a trial. In the courtroom, prejudice does not always mean the same things that it means outside of the courtroom. Generally, prejudice involves prejudging someone based on stereotypes or preconceived notions about who they are, often based on race, gender, etc. In the courtroom context, prejudice involves the jury believing that someone is guilty based on something other than the evidence. Prosecutors, as representatives of the state, have a special interest and responsibility toward a just outcome. Thus, they may be held to a higher standard. Judges may look at the behavior of the prosecutor to analyze it for potential misconduct and/or whether it was prejudicial.

Prosecutorial Misconduct

This case was heard by the Florida Second Circuit Court of Appeal. In his initial trial, the defendant was charged with robbery with a deadly weapon. The jury found him guilty of that charge. On appeal, the defendant asserted a number of different claims. One of the claims that the defendant brought on appeal was an allegation of prosecutorial misconduct. Specifically, the defendant argued that it was error for the court to have allowed the prosecutor to suggest that the victim changed his story between the robbery and the trial due to actions by the defense counsel.

The underlying facts, as determined at trial, were that the intoxicated defendant went in to a liquor store and started stuffing liquor bottles in his pocket. When the store clerk approached the defendant, he pulled something from under his shirt and brandished it at the clerk while warning, “don’t you dare.” The clerk went back to his counter, got his gun, and ordered the defendant to drop his weapon or “whatever it was in his hand.” The defendant kept walking and left the store with one of the bottles. He was later located nearby by police – drunk and belligerent – and was arrested. The police did not find any weapons or objects that fit the description of what the defendant was holding.The defendant was charged with robbery with a deadly weapon.

Immediately after the incident, the store clerk called the police. He told them that a man had threatened him with a knife before stealing liquor. However, at trial the store clerk testified that he did not know what the defendant was holding and that it looked like a spatula. He also testified that he did not believe it was a weapon. The prosecution tried to impeach this testimony by asking the witness/victim how many times he had spoken to defense counsel between the time of the incident and trial. After answering the question the prosecution then asked questions about when he realized it was a spatula and not a knife and whether the defendant’s mother had talked to him. Though portions of this testimony were objected to by the defense, the judge allowed it to stand.

In this appeal the defendant argues that it was error for the court to allow the prosecutor to allude to possible witness tampering by the defense when there was no evidence to support that assertion. The court here agreed with the argument and noted that it is reversible error for the state to imply tampering without evidence. Thus, the conviction was thrown out and the defendant was given a new trial.

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