How Florida Prosecutors’ Inappropriate Comments to a Jury Led to a Reversed Conviction

Everyone has the right to be tried by a jury of their peers, and for that trial to be fair. The many protections enshrined in Florida law to protect a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial exist to ensure justice; in other words, to make certain an accused person doesn’t receive a conviction or a punishment not supported by the evidence. Trials often become unfair when prosecutors overstep the bounds of what they can say to the jury. The potential for prosecutorial overstep is one reason among many why, if you’re on trial, you need a knowledgeable Tampa Bay criminal defense lawyer advocating for you.

A recent drug case from our northeast is a prime example. The accused, A.S., had had multiple run-ins with law enforcement. In 2019, officers in Duval County executed a search warrant on the home where A.S. lived. They found drugs but the state did not charge the man after that search.

In 2020, officers executed another search warrant on the same home. Again, they found drugs. This time, the state charged the man with multiple drug crimes including trafficking in eutylone, which is a type of synthetic bath salt.

The prosecution wanted to use the 2019 search in its 2020 case against the man. Florida law generally doesn’t allow prosecutors to use evidence of prior bad acts to prove an accused person’s guilt. Florida, however, does have a statute that allows the state to use proof of prior bad acts or crimes if it tends to prove a “material fact in issue.” The material fact can be motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or “absence of mistake or accident.”

This is called “Williams Rule Evidence.” The state wanted the 2019 evidence included because the crime of trafficking in Florida requires proof that the accused knowingly sold, purchased, manufactured, or delivered the drugs in question, or that he knowingly possessed an amount above the statutory threshold.

Used for Proof of Guilt, Not Knowledge

The judge allowed the state to use the 2019 search to prove the requisite element of knowledge, but only for that purpose. Nevertheless, the prosecutors repeatedly misused the 2019 evidence. The prosecutors told the jury that A.S. went to jail after the 2019 search but that incident had not changed him and his drug trafficking business remained an “ongoing operation.” Even more egregiously, the prosecution told the jury just before they retired to deliberate that A.S. “got away with it in 2019” and that jurors should not “let him get away with it in 2020.”

Other Ways Prosecutors’ Comments Can Be Improper

The prosecutors did other improper things as well. They told the jury that they “see this stuff all the time. We see how these houses are run. We see how the defendants try to outschool the police. Now you see it.” This was an example of a prosecutor improperly interjecting his personal opinion about the accused’s guilt. They also told the jury that it “did not take the police long to figure it out. It should not take us very long to figure it out either.” This is an example of improper bolstering. Bolstering happens when the state vouches for a witness’s credibility or “places the prestige of the government behind the witness.”

The state also cannot improperly disparage the accused, his legal counsel, or defense witnesses. In A.S.’s case, a prosecutor went on a long diatribe about how “if there was a print on that bag, the defense would be telling you, it just means he touched the bag at one point. Maybe he made a sandwich. Maybe he brought along some cold cuts and some pulled pork. He touched the bag and then someone else filled it with drugs. There is an explanation for everything.” This is an example of improper disparagement, Previous examples have included a prosecutor telling the jury the defense case was a “sea of confusion” that the defendant “prays you get lost in,” and telling a jury that defense witnesses and evidence were “pathetic,” “insulting,” “preposterous,” “nonsense,” and “bologna.”

Generally, an accused person’s trial lawyer must make a timely objection to the prosecution’s improper statements, or else that argument is forever lost. This is a place where having skilled counsel is crucial. The only way you can still get a new trial in the absence of a timely objection is if the appeals court rules that the prosecutors’ missteps constituted “fundamental error,” which the court decided was the case in A.S.’s trial. That determination of fundamental error was crucial because the man’s trial lawyer failed to object to the prosecutors’ many improper statements, a failure the appeals court called “incomprehensible.”

The outcome of your criminal trial may impact and alter your entire life in the future. This is too important not to arm yourself with every resource you can, including zealous legal counsel. The skillful Tampa Bay criminal defense attorneys at Blake & Dorsten P.A. are here to provide diligent and effective representation in your drug case. We are former prosecutors, and we put the insights we gained from that experience to work for our clients in all of our drug cases. To find out more, call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your free initial consultation.

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