How the Exclusion of a Defense Expert Witness Led to the Reversal of a Miami-Area Man’s Criminal Negligence Conviction

In the law, the vast majority of issues are colored in shades of gray. That’s why a knowledgeable Tampa Bay criminal defense attorney may answer so many questions with “It depends.” One thing that is fairly cut-and-dried, though, is the wide latitude the law gives an accused person in putting on a defense at trial.

As an example, we can look at the criminal case of J.A., a police officer in North Miami. In July 2016, J.A., along with a dozen other law enforcement officers, responded to a dispatch call about a man standing in an intersection with a gun in his hand.

J.A. thought the object the man held was a gun and that a second nearby man was his hostage. The officer next to him thought it was a gun. Radio dispatches were not definitive. J.A., a trained SWAT officer, fired three shots.

In actuality, the object was a silver-colored toy truck, the suspected hostage-taker was a man with severe autism who had left his nearby group home, and the presumed hostage actually was a behavioral professional employed by the home.

The state charged the officer with multiple crimes, including criminal negligence. At trial, the officer sought to call, as part of his defense, one of his department’s assistant chiefs. That chief would have testified about the SWAT training J.A. received.

The prosecution objected and, due to fears of “possible jury confusion if presented with a standard seemingly different from the one contained in the jury instructions,” the trial judge upheld the objection, meaning that the chief’s testimony was out.

The jury eventually convicted him of criminal negligence.

The Court of Appeal, however, reversed that conviction, concluding that the exclusion of the chief’s proposed testimony denied the officer a fair trial.

Actions Were Dictated by ‘Specific Training’

In any criminal negligence case, the law requires that the state prove that the accused acted with a “reckless disregard for human life.” In this officer’s case, the prosecution alleged that the officer’s “assessment of the circumstances, and his response thereto, constituted such recklessness” sufficient to support a criminal conviction. A key part of the defense was asserting that J.A.’s assessment of the situation and response to it (which were at the center of the case,) “were dictated by his specific training.”

Moreover, the prosecution’s case advanced the idea that J.A., when he fired his weapon, “grossly departed from what was ordinary and reasonable for a law enforcement officer confronting such circumstances.” J.A.’s contention was that the chief’s testimony would serve as evidence indicating that, while perhaps seemingly unreasonable on the surface, J.A.’s actions were actually reasonable if viewed in light of his unique training. By denying him the opportunity to put on that evidence, the trial court “precluded [him] from presenting a key ingredient” crucial to his defense.

That meant that the officer did not get a fair trial and that his conviction should be reversed.

When you are on trial for criminal actions, there are many different types of evidence that potentially can strengthen your defense or weaken the prosecution’s case. It may include forensic evidence, fact witness testimony (such as eyewitness statements,) or perhaps the opinion evidence of expert witnesses. Maybe it’s a combination of all three. Whatever your case requires, count on the knowledgeable Tampa Bay criminal defense attorneys at Blake & Dorsten P.A. to know how to give you the strongest defense possible. Call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your FREE initial consultation.

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