Florida Supreme Court Rules Wrong Jury Instructions Were Fundamental Error - Williams v. State

March 27, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

I was pleased to see a recent Florida Supreme Court case that will cement a change in the way jury instructions are given in Florida for the serious crime of manslaughter. In Williams v. State, defendant Amos Williams was convicted of attempted manslaughter. Manslaughter in Florida is a killing without intent to kill, but the standard jury instruction for manslaughter requires the jury to find the defendant intended to kill. As a result, Williams argued, the jury instructions in his case were wrong and he should be granted a new trial. The high court agreed, holding that the jury instructions used are wrong when the crime of conviction is no more than one step removed from the offense of instruction. A dissent argued that while the jury instructions were wrong, this was not fundamental error and Williams should not get a new trial.

Williams stabbed his (now ex-) girlfriend multiple times in 2006, in front of their ten-month-old daughter, and prevented her from fleeing by stabbing her more when she tried. He told police she fell on the knife during a struggle. The criminal charge was attempted first-degree murder, but the jury found him guilty of attempted second-degree murder, burglary and false imprisonment. The instruction on attempted manslaughter said the state must prove that Williams intended to cause his ex-girlfriend's death, but also that he did not need premeditated intent to kill. Williams appealed this instruction to the Fourth District Court of Appeal, saying a contemporary case, State v. Montgomery, had invalidated the standard instruction. The court issued a corrected jury instruction as a result. The Fourth District upheld the ruling and Williams again appealed.

The Florida Supreme Court considered two questions: Did the jury instruction constitute fundamental error, and is attempted manslaughter a viable offense after Montgomery? It ultimately said yes to both. The manslaughter statute imposes no requirement that the defendant intended to kill, the court said, and attempted manslaughter must follow the same rule. And because the instruction for manslaughter was erroneous, the court said, the jury may have convicted him of second-degree murder because it thought that was the only option available when there was no intent to kill. Thus, the court said, a correct instruction would have been vital to the decision between possible charges--making the error a fundamental error. Whenever an erroneous instruction is no more than one step removed from the crime of conviction, the court said, it's fundamental error. It went on to hold that attempted manslaughter is still a viable offense in Florida.

This decision does not permit Williams to go free, although it's possible that the jury at his new trial will have a radically different view than the first jury and acquit him. What it does is permit that second jury to find Williams guilty of attempted manslaughter rather than attempted murder, which means he could serve a shorter sentence. An attempted crime is penalized just like a completed crime, which means the maximum sentence for attempted second-degree murder is life in prison; the maximum sentence for attempted manslaughter is up to 15 year. That difference is important to Williams, the families involved and the Florida justice system, which is why I agree with the high court that this erroneous jury instruction constitutes fundamental error and should be corrected with a new trial. Even defendants who are not sympathetic deserve a fair trial.

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