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.
The 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.
Other witnesses described the victim’s relationship with his girlfriend as toxic and violent. Several also recounted that the brother attacked the victim with a screwdriver two months before the murder. Surveillance video from the night of the murder showed the brother wearing a hoodie, holding a bag, and walking around the neighborhood at 2:00 a.m. It also showed the brother’s car making a U-turn in front of the house after the defendant’s car approached. A neighbor said she saw the brother and a man in a hoodie walking toward the orange grove between 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m.
The defendant’s attorneys argued that he was not involved in the crime but merely met up with the brother to smoke marijuana after the brother committed the murder. His sister testified that she was with the defendant at his home until 2:00 a.m. The lawyers also presented a witness who was with the brother in isolation in county jail – where the brother was imprisoned for a separate criminal offense – for 12 days while both men were being treated for medical conditions. The witness said the brother told him he’d committed the “perfect murder” alone, tricking the victim to follow him to the orange grove to supposedly bury a gun. The brother shot the victim in the head and put the body in a hole he’d dug a day earlier, according to the witness.
But the court excluded additional testimony, in which the witness also said that the brother told him that the police “got the wrong guy” for the murder. Although he didn’t say who that guy was, the brother allegedly told the witness that the cops fingered the wrong person for the crime because the brother had not yet been charged.
On appeal, the Second District said the trial judge erred by excluding the testimony. Courts are generally banned from allowing hearsay evidence, or a statement offered at trial by a person other than the one who made the statement that is offered in order to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement. There are several exceptions to that rule, however, including one for certain “statements against interest,” like those that the brother allegedly made to the witness. The court noted that the testimony could have meant the difference between a conviction and an acquittal or a not guilty verdict.
“The witness’ testimony at trial that [the brother] had confessed to the shooting left open the possibility that [the defendant] was an accomplice,” the Second District said. “The excluded testimony went one step further by clearly suggesting that the police had ‘the wrong guy.’”
As a result, the court reversed the conviction and remanded the case back to the trial judge.
If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Florida, it is essential that you seek the advice and counsel of an experienced attorney. Tampa homicide defense lawyer Will Hanlon is a seasoned attorney who fights aggressively on behalf of clients charged with a wide range of offenses. Call our offices at (813) 228-7095 or contact us online to speak with Mr. Hanlon about your case.
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