Category Archives: Trial

You Can’t Say That!

Atticus Finch knew how to make an effective argument. This is a scene from the legendary movie, To Kill A Mockingbird.

Impermissible Arguments by Prosecutors Lead to Reversed Convictions

By: Adam L. Bantner, II

Because the U.S. Constitution requires a criminal defendant to be presumed innocent, that a defendant receive a fair trial, and that a defendant does not have to any burden to prove his own innocence, prosecutors have to be very careful in making their arguments to the jury.

In closing argument, the attorney’s role is to “assist the jury in analyzing, evaluating and applying the evidence.” Cardona v. State, 185 So. 3d 514, 519 (Fla. 2016) (quoting U.S. v. Morris, 568 F. 2d 396, 401 (5th Cir. 1978)). Comments made during closing argument that are intended to inject emotion and fear into the jury are outside the scope of a proper closing argument. Lewis v. State, 780 So. 2d 125, 129 (Fla. 3d DCA 2001); Garron v. State, 528 So. 2d 353, 359 (Fla. 1988). It is improper for an attorney to express a personal opinion about the credibility of a witness during closing argument. Johnson v. State, 801 So. 2d 141, 142 (Fla. 4th DCA 2001) (“It is equally improper for the state to vouch for the credibility of a police officer by arguing that the jury should believe police officers solely because they are police officers.”). “It is the responsibility of the prosecutor to seek a verdict based on the evidence without indulging in appeals to sympathy, bias, passion or prejudice.” Brinson v. State, 153 So. 3d 972 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015) (quoting Edwards v. State, 428 So. 2d 357, 359 (Fla. 3d DCA 1983).

Should a prosecutor make such an argument, Courts apply the “Lopez Test” when determining whether prosecutorial comments merit a new trial. To warrant a new trial, the comments must either 1) deprive the defendant of a fair and impartial trial; 2) materially contribute to the conviction; 3) be so harmful or fundamentally tainted as to require a new trial; or 4) be so inflammatory that they might have influenced the jury to reach a more severe verdict than it would have otherwise. Spencer v. State, 645 So. 2d 377, 383 (Fla. 1994) (citing Lopez v. State, 555 So. 2d 1298, 1299 (Fla. 3d DCA 1990)).

Morell v. State, Improper Burden Shifting

In Morell v. State, 26 Fla. L. Weekly Supp. 883a (Fla. 17th Cir. Ct., 2018), Morell was charged with driving under the influence. He performed one field sobriety exercise, horizontal gaze nystagmus, but refused the other exercises and refused to provide a sample of his breath for testing.

In closing arguments, the prosecutor focused her attention almost solely on the defendant’s failure to provide the jury with additional evidence of his guilt. Her statements included:

  • … defendant failed to provide what would be the best evidence in this case.
  • … the defendant said, fine, I will choose not to give the ladies and gentlemen of the jury today the best evidence in this case, which would be his breath.
  • … the State has proven that the only lack of evidence in this case comes from the defendant refusing to provide the breath sample to you all today.

The court held that each of these statements improperly shifted the burden upon the defendant to provide evidence to the jury. As such, it amounted to fundamental error to require reversal of the conviction even without proper preservation of the errors by defense counsel.

Alou v. State, Improper Vouching and Appeal to Passions of the Jury

In another DUI case, the court reversed a conviction because a prosecutor made arguments that effected the defendant’s ability to receive a fair trial. In Alou v. State, 26 Fla. L. Weekly Supp. 869a (Fla. 11th Cir. Ct., 2018), the prosecutor improperly vouched for the credibility of a law enforcement witness and improperly appealed to the sympathies and passions of the jury.

The statements were:

  • Officer Franco is not going to misrepresent the words of this Defendant.
  • Then he almost hit a bus, a bright colored bus. Then he almost hit that bus, again. Members of the jury, what if he didn’t miss?

In this case, unlike in Morell, the defense attorney did his job by properly objecting to the offending statements and moving for a mistrial. While the court did sustain the objections, it never gave a curative instruction to the jury and it denied the motion for a mistrial.

The Circuit Court, sitting in its appellate capacity, ruled that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the motion for a mistrial. As such, the verdict was reversed and the case was remanded to the trial court for a new trial.

There’s a Right Way to Preserve a Juror Challenge

By: Adam L. Bantner, II, B.C.S.

Jury selection is the beginning of your trial. Some believe that a case can be won or lost at jury selection. While I don’t necessarily believe that a trial can be won at this stage, I certainly believe that it can be lost before the first word of testimony is delivered.

As such, if someone is taking their case to trial, whether a criminal or personal injury matter, you need an attorney skilled in trial practice and jury selection. With over 30 trials under my belt, I’ve honed my trial skills more than most attorneys.

In jury selection, we are trying to accomplish two things: 1) get rid of jurors predisposed to rule against your client, and 2) start planting the seeds of persuasion for your case. Successfully fulfilling both of these objectives is more art than science and the scope of this article is not expansive enough to cover the “how-to” on accomplishing these goals. Suffice to say, at this point, a necessary skill to get this done is getting your jurors to speak. Getting a person, who probably doesn’t want to be there in the first place, to open up about who they are, their beliefs, and their life in general, is difficult. However, it is possible and completely necessary to getting a good jury.But what do you do if you find a juror who, to you, is undesirable for service on your jury?

In any trial, counsel has unlimited “cause” challenges. A cause challenge can be utilized whenever a juror has indicated that they can’t do the job as instructed by the court and according to the law. For example, if a juror says that he/she would need to hear testimony from a criminal defendant and he/she would hold it against the defendant should he/she desire to exercise his or her right to remain silent, that juror should be stricken for cause by the court upon motion by counsel. These types of challenges are unlimited because you can’t have an unqualified juror serving on a case.

The other type is “peremptory” challenges. These can be used for any reason not forbidden by law. For example, you can’t use a peremptory against someone for simply being black, for being a woman, for being old, etc. However, if you believe that the court improperly denied a cause challenge, you can use one of your peremptory challenges on that person. Peremptory challenges are limited in number. The number is set by law depending on the type of case being tried.

However, if a judge denies both a cause and peremptory challenge to a juror, certain steps must be taken to ensure that the issue is preserved for appeal. They are relatively simple, but necessary.

First, make the challenge. You can’t appeal a denial if you never asked for the juror to be excused. If the cause challenge was denied but the court allowed you to use a peremptory challenge on that person, you must ask for an additional peremptory challenge. If you don’t, the denial of the cause challenge will not be appealable. The theory is that if the court gives you an extra peremptory to use, no harm no foul because the litigant essentially got what he or she desired anyway.

Finally, if the court denies both the cause and peremptory challenges (or just the peremptory if no cause challenge was made), you must renew the objection before the jury, as a whole, is sworn in to hear the case. Failure to renew the objection will act as a waiver of any previous objections to denials by the court for cause.

In Hernandez v. State, the Second DCA indicated that it would have reversed and remanded for a new trial had the trial lawyer properly preserved the denial of a peremptory challenge. In that case, Hernandez’s lawyer moved to remove a juror for cause because a juror had stated he would have a problem if Hernandez failed to testify. The juror later stated that he would not have a problem. As such, the Court denied the cause challenge.

The Court, improperly, also denied the peremptory challenge made by counsel. The Court unfortunately applied the “cause” standard to a “peremptory” challenge. This was error. However, counsel failed to renew the objection prior to the swearing in of the jury. As such, the District Court of Appeal had to affirm the judgment and sentence of the trial court and did not grant Hernandez a new trial.

As you can see, having a skilled trial attorney is essential to having a fair trial while also preserving any appellate issues that may arise during the trial. Adam Bantner is a board certified criminal trial law attorney in Hillsborough County. Call us today to see how we can help!

Judges Get This One Wrong All The Time!

An Excited Utterance Can Be Admissible Even When Self-Serving

By Adam L. Bantner, II

Adam@TampaCrimeAttorneys.com

www.TampaCrimeAttorneys.com

During the course of a criminal trial it is not unfamiliar for a judge to sustain an hearsay objection whenever the hearsay statement is that of the person on trial. This is true even when the statement qualifies for admission under an exception to the hearsay rule. The common refrain from the prosecutor is, “But judge, it’s self-serving. Self-serving hearsay is inadmissible.” This can be enough to persuade the judge. 

However, criminal defense attorneys have a new case with which to arm themselves against this wrong line of thinking. The Fourth District Court of Appeal in Hinck v. State, 43 Fla. L. Weekly D2681c (Fla. 4th DCA 2018) held that so long as the particular requirements of the exception are met, in this case it was an excited utterance, the self-serving nature of the statement will not automatically preclude its admission into evidence; it is but one consideration.

The Excited Utterance Hearsay Exception

Fla. Stat. 90.803(2) allows for the admission of an “excited utterance” when the following criteria is met: [T]he statement must be made: (1) regarding an event startling enough to cause nervous excitement; (2) before there was time to contrive or misrepresent; and (3) while the person was under the stress or excitement caused by the event. Hayward v. State, 24 So.3d 17 (Fla. 2009). Conspicuously absent is any requirement that the statement not benefit the defendant if the statement is his. 

The confusion comes from the courts’ ability to blend the requirements for the admission of a spontaneous statement and excited utterance. It shouldn’t be done, but an element for the admission of a spontaneous statement is it not be made under circumstances which indicate its lack of trustworthiness. Obviously, you don’t want unreliable evidence to be admitted; but the fact that a person is under the stress or excitement of a startling event is exactly what gives an excited utterance its trustworthiness. If the statement is fabricated, then its not being made under stress or excitement. As such, this requirement is unnecessary for an excited utterance to be admitted. 

State v. Hinck

In this case, Hinck had stabbed a man with whom he met online for a casual sexual encounter. Hinck claimed that he had a change of heart about going through with the act and that the victim of the stabbing had tried to force himself upon Hinck. Hinck claimed to have responded in self defense by using his knife.

Upon coming down the stairs from the hotel room, Hinck stated to the hotel attendant, “I’ve been attacked; I stabbed someone.” This is the statement to which the state objected. The trial court sustained that objected and Hinck was ultimately convicted. 

However, the appellate court reversed the conviction because the statement should have been admitted and such error was not harmless.

Call The Bantner Firm

If you find yourself or someone you love facing a serious felony allegation, you need an attorney who knows his way around the courtroom. Adam Bantner is a board certified criminal trial law attorney helping the accused in Hillsborough County. Call us today for your free consultation. 813.397.3965.

Will a Discovery Violation Earn a New Trial?

What Happens When the State Hides the Ball?

Sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently, the Office of the State Attorney and its prosecutors will fail to provide discovery (evidence that it intends to use at trial), to the defense. When this occurs, we have a discovery violation. The Rules of Criminal Procedure require that the State provides a myriad of evidence within 15 days of the defense’s election to participate in the discovery process. 

The Process

First, you must have a skilled trial attorney who will be able to recognize when a violation has occurred. Adam Bantner is board certified in criminal trial law and has extensive trial experience. He will catch such a violation. 

Typically, a violation is not caught until trial when the Assistant State Attorney, through its witness, introduces evidence (a statement by the defendant, an observation of the witness, etc.) that has not been disclosed to the defense. When this happens, defense counsel must object and request that the statement be stricken and, I would recommend, request a mistrial. Should the court do neither, your attorney should request a Richardson hearing. It’s also important to note that it doesn’t matter whether the ASA was aware of the evidence. They are charged with constructive knowledge of the evidence possessed by their agents, i.e., law enforcement. Rojas v. State, 904 So.2d 598 (Fla. 5th DCA 2005).

Richardson Hearing

At this hearing, which will occur outside of the presence of the jury, the Court will first determine whether the evidence was not disclosed to the defense. Assuming this finding is made, the Court will next determine whether violation was harmless to the defense. This determinate is obviously the more complicated of the two findings that must be made. 

Recently, 15th Circuit Court Judge Harper summarized the determination as follows:

In State v. Schopp, 653 So. 2d 1016, 1019 (Fla. 1995) [20 Fla. L. Weekly S136a], the Florida Supreme Court made clear that “[t]he question of ‘prejudice’ in a discovery context is not dependent upon the potential impact of the undisclosed evidence on the fact finder but rather upon its impact on the defendant’s ability to prepare for trial.” (quoting Smith v. State, 500 So. 2d 125, 126 (Fla. 1986)). In conducting this analysis, the court should analyze whether the defense’s “trial preparation or strategy” would have been materially different had the defendant the benefit of the missing discovery. Scipio v. State, 928 So. 2d 1138, 1147 (Fla. 2006) [31 Fla. L. Weekly S114a]. “Trial preparation or strategy should be considered materially different if it reasonably could have benefitted the defendant.” Id. (quoting Schopp, 653 So. 2d at 1020). Only when the reviewing court “can say beyond a reasonable doubt that the defense was not procedurally prejudiced by the discovery violation can the error be considered harmless.” Id. (quoting Schopp, 653 So. 2d at 1021). 

Shannon v. State, FLWSUPP 2606SHAN (Fla. 15th Cir. Ct. 2018).

Will I Get a New Trial

This is the million dollar question. However, it is very fact specific. In Shannon, a new trial was not granted where evidence of defendant’s statement that “I’m going to fucking kill him” was not disclosed. The Court held that this statement was sufficiently similar to the properly admitted statement of “I’m going to go get my gun” so that the defense was not prejudiced in its preparation. Additionally, the defense was able to cross-examine the detective regarding the undisclosed statement and its strategy would not have changed had the undisclosed statement been disclosed. 

Expert Criminal Trial Representation Matters!

As you can see, trial work can be complicated. If you or your friends/family ever find yourself on the wrong side of a criminal allegation, don’t put your freedom in the hands of an inexperienced practitioner. Call The Bantner Firm today at 813.397.3965 to set up your free consultation!

Trust Your Community Lawyer!