When Details Matter: How A Misstatement of the Charged Crime in Jury Instructions Led to a Reversal of a Florida Conviction

One of the protagonists from a famous 2009 movie encouraged others to “enjoy the little things.” In the law, it is less about enjoying the little things than it is about paying keen attention to the little things because sometimes the little things can make a huge difference in your criminal case. That was the case for one defendant who was facing sexual assault charges and who won a reversal of his conviction because the trial court, in issuing jury instructions, misstated the crime with which the state had charged the man. These and other minute but highly important details are examples of the types of areas in which experienced Florida sex crime attorneys can help you.

In the case, recently decided by the Fifth District Court of Appeal, the defendant was accused of trying to take advantage of an inebriated woman. Specifically, the defendant, the victim, and several of the defendant’s co-workers had spent the night drinking, and the victim ended up passed out in a field next to the bar’s parking lot. Eventually, several of the group got the unconscious woman to a van owned by one of the group. Even though the victim was “essentially non-responsive,” everyone except the victim went back inside the bar. After that, the defendant went back outside, purportedly to check on the victim. Then, sometime after that, the van’s owner went out to check. She discovered the victim, still largely not responsive, in a “half-naked” state and the defendant, with no pants on, standing over her.

At trial, the jury heard replays of phone calls, made by the victim but recorded by the police, during which the defendant “admitted that he attempted and probably did try to have sex” with the victim. Eventually, the case went to the jury, and the jury convicted the man. With facts like these, the case against the defendant might seem, to a layperson, to be ironclad. However, in many aspects of the law, from contract law to criminal defense, the difference between a favorable and an unfavorable outcome can be the smallest of details and knowing how to present those details to the courts. Additionally, even with alleged facts that are offensive and potentially triggering for some, the law still requires that all defendants receive a trial that comports with all of the fundamental elements of fairness.

In this defendant’s case, the vital detail lay within the jury instructions. The court repeatedly told the jury that the defendant was charged with “attempt to commit attempted sexual battery.” The judge told the jury that they could find the defendant guilty if they found that he committed some act that represented an attempt to commit attempted sexual battery. These instructions were incorrect. There is no such thing as the crime of “attempt to commit attempted sexual battery” in Florida. What’s more, if an error in a set of jury instructions could cause a jury to believe that the burden on the state is less than what the law actually requires, that conviction cannot stand. The misstated instructions in this case did that, so that meant that the conviction against this man had to be reversed.

The state argued to the appeals court that everything about the case made it clear that the man was on trial for attempted sexual battery and that the jury was to decide whether or not he was guilty of attempted sexual battery, so the misstatement in the jury instruction should not, by itself, entitle the man to a new trial. The appeals court explained that the likelihood or unlikelihood of juror confusion was not the point. The law says that, if an element of a crime is inaccurately defined, and that inaccuracy is “pertinent or material to what the jury must consider in order to convict,” the jury instruction error is one that must entitle the defendant to a new trial.

Your criminal defense case is obviously profoundly important to you. You need skilled lawyers who know when and how to “sweat the small stuff.” The experienced Tampa Bay sex crime attorneys at Blake & Dorsten, P.A. have been defending accused people in the Florida courts for many years. Our experienced attorneys are ready to discuss your case with you. Call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your FREE initial consultation and get the answers and the reliable assistance you need.

More blog posts:

Accused Persons’ Rights to be Free from Double Jeopardy in Florida Criminal Cases, Tampa Bay Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, Oct. 24, 2016

Sarasota teen sets up high school prostitution ring, Tampa Bay Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, Dec. 5, 2014

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