Like many trial lawyers your favorite Clearwater Criminal Defense Attorney has seen many witnesses at trial; none more effective than Eye Witnesses. While working as a prosecutor it was always devastating to deliver the final punch with the Eye Witness leaving the Defense shattered. And no wonder Eye Witnesses are so effective in trials because the Eye Witness is seen by the jury as simply a teller of truth.
|Manet, A Plum Witness
Yet Eye Witness testimony is among the most unreliable at trial. Many guilty verdicts that were proven with Eye Witness testimony have been unwound by the Innocence Project thru DNA analysis establishing Defendants’ innocence. In fact the Innocence Project lists Eye Witness Misidentification as being “the single greatest cause of wrongful conviction playing a role in nearly 75% of convictions overturned trough DNA testing.”
The Misidentification comes from two categories of variables:
1. Estimator variables include simple factors like the lighting when the crime took place or the distance from which a witness sees a Defendant, also the amount of stress during a crime because of force used or the presence of firearms or trauma a witness experiences.
2. System variables include how law enforcement officers acquire witness memory including lineups and photo packs.
As you can see the ‘system variables’ should be controlled by the Criminal Court System. New Jury Instructions in states such as Florida caution Jurors to be wary of Eye Witness identifications made during criminal trials. Yet one of the confounding things I often see is that Florida Law Enforcement Officers are not required to record witness statements nor statements made by Defendants. Often their notes of what was said by witnesses and Defendants are proven to be wrong.
How reliable is Eye Witness testimony as studied not only be lawyers but by psychologists? Here’s an excerpt from The Problem of Eye Witness Testimony found in The Stanford Study of Legal Studies:
The process of interpretation occurs at the very formation of memory—thus introducing distortion from the beginning. Furthermore, witnesses can distort their own memories without the help of examiners, police officers or lawyers. Rarely do we tell a story or recount events without a purpose…
The act of telling a story adds another layer of distortion, which in turn affects the underlying memory of the event. This is why a fish story, which grows with each retelling, can eventually lead the teller to believe it… it is not necessary for a witness to lie or be coaxed by prosecutorial error to inaccurately state the facts—the mere fault of being human results in distorted memory and inaccurate testimony.
Clearly Eye Witness testimony should be viewed with a healthy skepticism, because the goal of a criminal trial must be to provide the Defendant with the fairest trial possible and maybe along the way, to even find the truth.
Clearwater criminal lawyers have long been wary of eyewitness misidentification during criminal trials. Often jurors place far too much confidence in eyewitness identifications despite studies which have shown that misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful criminal convictions in the United States.
The Florida Supreme Court yesterday laid out new jury instructions which should help jurors in making proper evaluations of eyewitness testimony. Press Reports note that Florida Criminal juries will be told by the presiding Judge at the end of each case to take the following factors into consideration:
|Joseph Ducreux, Discretion, 1790
…whether witnesses are of the same race or ethnic group as those they are identifying, how familiar they are with people they are identifying and whether they relied solely on their own recollection or have been influenced in some way….
To consider the capacity and opportunity of a witness to observe a suspect including length of time, lighting and distance. Jurors also will be told to consider how much time has gone by since an event before identifications are made and any inconsistencies by witnesses.
Although criminal juries won’t be directly warned about proven failures of eye witness identification nor given methodical guidance, this is a long step in the right direction and should serve as a model for other states.
Clearwater criminal attorneys will not only always be permitted to make arguments at trial against eyewitness testimony, but those arguments will now be supported by the jury instructions in all Florida criminal cases.
Is it Sumo Wrestling or Aggravated Battery? How can you be certain of what constitutes a crime in Florida?
The Florida Criminal Statutes may seem difficult to understand for those who aren’t Clearwater Criminal Defense Lawyers as they often are even for those of us who are. The statutes are written in ways which may seem purposefully obscure and convoluted, not just so you won’t understand them, but with the hopeful intent that a well written law will narrow the breadth of a statute to capture only the acts which the Florida legislature actually intended to outlaw or at least make you hire an attorney or two.
|Sumo Wrestling or Battery?
The key to knowing the law is to find what is known as the elements of a criminal offense. The elements of a crime are a set of specific facts which must be proven for every Florida criminal violation of law. Many Florida trial lawyers find that the Florida Criminal Jury Instructions which have been approved by The Florida Supreme Court are a reliable way to find the actual elements of a crime which the prosecution must prove to convict. Jury Instructions are the actual instructions which a criminal trial judge gives to a jury before it deliberates on guilt or innocence in every criminal case. Because these instructions are given to citizen jurors, the language is as straight forward as possible with the goal of being easy to understand. Here’s an example of the Aggravated Battery instruction:
8.4 AGGRAVATED BATTERY 784.045, Fla. Stat.
To prove the crime of Aggravated Battery, the State must prove the following two elements beyond a reasonable doubt. The first element is a definition of battery.
[intentionally touched or struck (victim) against [his] [her] will].
[intentionally caused bodily harm to (victim)].
Give 2a or 2b as applicable.
2. (Defendant) in committing the battery
a. intentionally or knowingly caused
[great bodily harm to (victim)].
[permanent disability to (victim)].
[permanent disfigurement to (victim)].
b. used a deadly weapon.
Definition. Give if 2b alleged.
A weapon is a “deadly weapon” if it is used or threatened to be used in a way likely to produce death or great bodily harm.
The statute might be difficult to understand but the jury instructions are simple. The State of Florida to prove an Aggravated Battery must first prove that the Defendant touched or struck someone against the victim’s will, a simple battery. Then further must show that the Defendant intentionally caused either great bodily harm, disability or disfigurement. If a deadly weapon was allegedly used then the Jury would be given the definition of deadly weapon. Effectively using the Florida Criminal Jury Instructions isn’t just for Clearwater Criminal Attorneys, it’s also for all the Sumo wrestlers wanting to know what constitutes crime in the State of Florida.
Stand your ground is the law in Florida. Recently in Tampa a man stabbed another man in the head with an ice pick after a traffic dispute leaving the stabbed man in critical condition. His defense was that he was standing his ground.
In Clearwater the police determined there would be no arrest of a man who shot his neighbor after a shouting match over putting out garbage.
In Hillsborough a jogger shot and killed
an unarmed man eight times, yet the jogger was not prosecuted after establishing that he’d been struck in the face first and believed the other man to be armed. But eight shots, you’d think he might have stopped at seven…
The Florida law gives people the right to use deadly force against intruders entering their homes or vehicles, no longer needing to prove fear for their safety, only that the person who is stabbed, shot with a firearm or even killed intruded unlawfully and forcefully. Thus making a defense to charges of aggravated battery
Previous Florida law and common law required that a person attacked in a public place must retreat if possible. Now someone attacked in public, “has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.” The law also forbids the arrest, detention or prosecution of the people covered by the law, and it prohibits civil suits against them.
The central innovation in the Florida law is in expanding the right to shoot intruders who pose no threat to the occupant’s safety. According to the International Herald Tribune, one professor of law noted, “In effect,” Professor Sebok said, “the law allows citizens to kill other citizens in defense of property.” At least the Florida Supreme Court
has ruled in its standard jury instructions
that the Defendant must actually believe that the threat and danger is real. Statutes & Constitution :View Statutes : Online Sunshine
776.013 Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.—
(1) A person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another if:
(a) The person against whom the defensive force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle, or if that person had removed or was attempting to remove another against that person’s will from the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle; and
(b) The person who uses defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.
(2) The presumption set forth in subsection (1) does not apply if:
(a) The person against whom the defensive force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, residence, or vehicle, such as an owner, lessee, or titleholder, and there is not an injunction for protection from domestic violence or a written pretrial supervision order of no contact against that person; or
(b) The person or persons sought to be removed is a child or grandchild, or is otherwise in the lawful custody or under the lawful guardianship of, the person against whom the defensive force is used; or
(c) The person who uses defensive force is engaged in an unlawful activity or is using the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle to further an unlawful activity; or
(d) The person against whom the defensive force is used is a law enforcement officer, as defined in s. 943.10(14), who enters or attempts to enter a dwelling, residence, or vehicle in the performance of his or her official duties and the officer identified himself or herself in accordance with any applicable law or the person using force knew or reasonably should have known that the person entering or attempting to enter was a law enforcement officer.
(3) A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
(4) A person who unlawfully and by force enters or attempts to enter a person’s dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving force or violence.
Members of the Florida Supreme Court rest after a hard day’s work in the Fields of Justice.
Many studies show that eye witness testimony is often not as reliable as the witness believes.
Now the law is catching up to scientific studies. And at least one Clearwater Criminal Defense Attorney believes a recent court opinion should be applied in Tampa Bay Criminal Courts even if it is from the New Jersey Supreme Court. How about a special Florida jurisdiction for what’s right? It’s certainly persuasive. It cites countless studies and scientific research on how memories work and how testimony can be flawed and how juries can make mistakes. In short, the court held:
The current legal standard for assessing eyewitness identification evidence must be revised because it does not offer an adequate measure for reliability; does not sufficiently deter inappropriate police conduct; and overstates the jury’s ability to evaluate identification evidence. Two modifications to the standard are required. First, when defendants can show some evidence of suggestiveness, all relevant system and estimator variables should be explored at pretrial hearings. Second, the court system must develop enhanced jury charges on eyewitness identification for trial judges to use.
The court is right to look at the suggestiveness of the identification as a factor in reliability. If you need a reliable Clearwater Criminal Lawyer to look at the reliability of a Florida eye witness give me a call.