Welcome back to the Glassman Law Blog and my biweekly explanation of a recent appellate decision. Last week’s case about blood draws in DUI arrests generated some good comments and conversation and hopefully you all will find this week’s case just as enlightening and interesting. As always, this blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. If you or someone you know finds themselves charged with a criminal offense, reach out to the Law Office Of Matthew Glassman, so you’ll have someone fighting for you and your rights! This week’s case arises from the Fourth District Court of Appeals – Reid v. State, 4D12-2303 – and discusses two issues that arise with some frequency in criminal cases: (1) improper closing argument by the prosecution and (2) the admissibility of prior in-court identifications of the defendant
Mr. Reid and his co-defendant were tried jointly (see Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.150) on charges of first degree murder and attempted first degree murder. The State Attorney’s theory of the case was that Mr. Reid and his co-defendant went to the residence of the surviving victim in order to regain possession of a stolen vehicle belonging to a Mr. William Tibe. The State argues that the murder and attempted murder occurred during a scuffle that ensued as a result of the defendants attempting to take the vehicle back. The defense’s theory, however, was that Mr. Tibe was solely responsible for the shootings and that Mr. Reid was never even at the residence. The defense further argued that the eye witnesses claiming that Mr. Reid was at the scene of the crime had been improperly influenced by the police. Ultimately, the jury found Mr. Reid guilty of the charged offenses. Based on the following flaws in the trial, however, the 4th District Court of Appeals reversed that conviction and returned the case back to the lower court for a new trial.
Improper Closing Argument
The first issue raised on appeal by the defense was statements that the prosecution made during closing argument that constituted “burden shifting” and were thus improper. In a criminal trial, a defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond and to the exclusion of all reasonable doubt. A defendant has no obligation to put on any evidence in his or her defense; it is the state’s sole obligation to prove its case with whatever evidence it presents at trial. The prosecution has a duty to turn over any and all relevant evidence to the defendant prior to trial (see Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.220) . However, during trial the prosecutor has the discretion to choose which and how much evidence they want to put in front of a jury. The defendant does not have a burden to put forth any evidence. That burden lies squarely with the prosecution. Therefore, A prosecutor “shifts the burden” by telling the jury that the defense could or should have done something to prove a defendant is innocent.
In this case, the prosecutor stated in closing argument (among other things) that the defense “could have called William Tibe…. They absolutely could have called William Tibe. They have the same availability to him as I do. They could have called him, but they didn’t. And yet, they tell you, Defendant’s counsel tells you, he could have been the one.” As the Court noted, “A basic tenet of American criminal jurisprudence is that the State has the sole burden of proving a criminal defendant’s guilt…. To protect this tenet of due process, the general rule is that the state cannot comment on a defendant’s failure to produce evidence to refute an element of the crime, because doing so could erroneously lead the jury to believe that the defendant carried the burden of introducing evidence.” Essentially, the prosecutor’s statement was improper because the jury should never wonder why a defendant did not call a particular witness, just as a jury should never wonder why a defendant did not testify in his or her own defense. These are foundational principles of our system of justice. The prosecutor’s statements crossed the line and were improper.
Fortunately for Mr. Reid, his attorney made an objection to these statements at the time they were made and preserved Mr. Reid’s right to address the issue on appeal. Because of defense counsel’s timely objection, the Appellate Court reversed the case and sent it back to the lower court for a new trial. Once again, this shows that a vigorous, engaged, and experienced defense attorney is necessary for you to protect all of your constitutional and statutory rights as a defendant in a criminal case.
Admissibility of In-Court Identifications
At four hearings prior to the trial, the surviving victim of the attempted murder identified Mr. Reid as one of the shooters. At trial, the State Attorney was permitted to ask the victim about these prior in-court identifications. These identifications bolstered the victim’s identifications by giving the jury the impressions that the victim had consistently identified Mr. Reid as the shooter. The Florida Evidence Code is the statutory scheme created by the legislature that determines what evidence is admissible at trial. Hearsay is defined as an out-of-court statement offered to prove the matter asserted. Subject to many, many exceptions, hearsay is inadmissible in the state of Florida. Fla. Stat. 90.801(2)(c) states that a statement of identification is admissible as it is “non-hearsay”. The classic example of such a statement of identification is a statement by a witness pointing out a suspect right after a crime has been committed (e.g. “that’s the guy the hit me”).
In this case, the State Attorney attempted to use statements of identification that were made in court, months after the alleged incident. The Appellate Court ruled that these statements were not admissible as they were not made sufficiently close in time to the event in question. The Court further ruled that this was not a harmless mistake by the trial court. The defense’s entire argument at trial was that Mr. Reid was misidentified as the shooter, in part based on the fact that shortly after the shooting the surviving victim could not identify Mr. Reid and the surviving victim had given a description of the shooter that did not match Mr. Reid’s physical description. In a close case such as this, allowing the surviving victim to improperly bolster his identification by saying he had made the identification on four other occasions may have been just enough to sway the jury to make a finding of guilty. Again, the smallest details in a criminal case can have an incredibly large impact. Only by having a zealous advocate in your corner will you ensure that your rights are fully protected.
Thanks for reading! If you or someone you love find themselves arrested for an offense, be sure to reach out to me as soon as possible. I can be reached for a free consultation at 954-908-3399 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.