Florida Supreme Court Sends Back Five Murder Cases for Potential Jury Instruction Flaws

November 16, 2011 by David S. Seltzer

As a south Florida murder criminal defense attorney, I was extremely interested to see a series of six decisions out of the state high court that all centered on the same issue. The Florida Supreme Court recently sent back the six cases, all of which asked whether juries in murder cases were given the proper jury instructions. In Solano v. State, Bonilla v. State, Zeigler v. State, Mungin v. State, Burgos v. State and Valdes-Pino v. State, the high court said the defendants may have been the victims of reversible error. All six were convicted of second-degree murder using then-standard jury instructions that changed after the court’s 2010 ruling in State v. Montgomery. That ruling said Montgomery was entitled to more accurate jury instructions on the lesser included offense of manslaughter by act. All six cases were sent back to the lower court for reconsideration in light of Montgomery.

In Montgomery, Steven Montgomery was convicted of second-degree murder with a weapon in the death of Tarnesha Ellis. He appealed to the First District Court of Appeal. Among other arguments, he argued to the court that manslaughter by act does not require an intent to kill, and thus the jury instructions in his case were incorrect. The appeals court agreed, finding that the jury was incorrectly told it must find that Montgomery intended to kill Ellis. The State of Florida petitioned the state high court for review and the appeals court certified a question of “great public importance”: “Is the state required to prove that the defendant intended to kill the victim in order to establish the crime of manslaughter by act?”

On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court said no. In the first part of its analysis, it found that the crime of manslaughter by act does not require intent to kill. First-degree murder requires this intent, which the court said distinguishes it from non-premeditated second-degree murder. Manslaughter, a lesser included offense of both kinds of murder, is a killing “by the act, procurement or culpable negligence of another... without lawful justification” in cases that aren’t justifiable homicide or murder. Thus, the court said, there is no requirement for intent to kill the victim. Next, the court found that the jury instruction in Montgomery’s case, which was standard at the time, erroneously required the jury to find that “(Defendant) intentionally caused the death of (victim).” Another instruction requiring no premeditated intent was not sufficient to counteract this language, the court found. Finally, it found that this instruction caused reversible fundamental error in Montgomery’s trial, requiring a new trial.

In each of the six cases recently decided, the case was sent back to the Second or Third District Court of Appeal for reconsideration of a case that court had previously decided in conflict with Montgomery. As a Miami-Dade manslaughter criminal defense lawyer, I’m pleased by these decisions. The reversals mean each defendant is likely to get a new trial, at which each could be re-convicted under the new jury instructions, or potentially convicted of manslaughter instead. Though it’s not a “get out of jail free card,” this should help ensure that each defendant gets a better shot at justice. As the high court said, jury instruction problems constitute fundamental error because they can make the difference between conviction and acquittal. As a Fort Lauderdale murder criminal defense lawyer, I believe that when the stakes are as high as life in prison or the death penalty, the standards for conviction must be scrupulously met.

If you’re charged with a serious crime in south Florida, don’t wait to call Seltzer Law, P.A., for help. We answer calls from clients and potential clients 24 hours a day and seven days a week, so we can be there when you need us. You can reach us through our website or call toll-free at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333).

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