In the wake of the not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin murder trial, a whirlwind of intense emotions have been flowing from all sides.
In fact, this case has generated strong reaction from the very beginning, with some of the loudest voices espousing the desire for Zimmerman, the accused killer, to be found guilty and imprisoned.
That he was found not guilty, our Broward felony defense lawyers believe, is a testament to the fact that the justice system did not bow to outside pressure. One juror was even quoted as saying that she did not realize their was such a firestorm of controversy around the case until after she and the five other jurors had decided it. Regardless of whether you agree with their decision, that is the way it should be.
Florida has a reputation for crimes that are odd or sensational or draw a significant amount of attention. Just look at former justice reporter Craig Pittman’s Slate.com blog, entitled “Oh, #Florida!” This is the home of acquitted child murderer Casey Anthony, now-deceased “face-eater” Rudy Eugene and the notorious serial killer Ted Bundy.
But no matter how horrific a crime might be, we can’t allow emotions to seep into the courtroom when it comes to a determination of guilt or innocence. To do so would be to compromise the very foundation of our criminal justice system.
In the Zimmerman case, you had a 26-year-old, white-Hispanic male, a neighborhood watch volunteer, who was suspicious of a 17-year-old black male teenager walking through a gated community at night. Neither one knew the other. Zimmerman contacted police, who told him to back off. Zimmerman got out of the vehicle, reportedly to check the address. At that point, he was allegedly attacked by Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman said he fired his weapon at Martin in self-defense.
As it later turned out, Martin was returning to his father’s residence in the complex after going to the store to buy some candy. He was unarmed.
Initially, police did not arrest Zimmerman on the basis of the Stand Your Ground Law, which holds that Floridians are allowed to meet force with force, with no obligation to retreat. Outcry from the public resulted in a special prosecutor being assigned to investigate the case. The decision was subsequently made to charge Zimmerman with second-degree murder.
There is some speculation as to whether the prosecutors charged Zimmerman improperly, and whether they should have instead gone with the more easily proven involuntary manslaughter charge.
We certainly understand why the case was rife with controversy. However, strictly from a defense attorney standpoint, the verdict was correct. There were many who believed Zimmerman should have been held accountable somehow, particularly given the fact that he was the one who followed Martin, even though he was advised by police to stop. However, Zimmerman was not legally bound by police advise and what’s more, a claim of self-defense is not negated when a person follows someone else.
The jury followed the instructions given to the letter of the law. At the end of the day, the state failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
A series of Florida cases recently have resulted in major criminal charges for making threats.
People tend to underestimate the kind of trouble words can get us into. Many people also overestimate their own anonymity in this digital age. Anonymous threats are often traced using phone records, computer IP addresses and other methods.
Our West Palm Beach criminal defense lawyers know there are several statutes governing threats, and the state tends to take such actions quite seriously.
One of those is Florida Statute 836.10, which governs written threats to kill or do bodily injury. This law states that any person who writes, composes and then sends any message – anonymous or otherwise – threatening to kill or do bodily injury to a person or family member of another person is guilty of a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Even if a threat doesn’t specifically threaten death or injury, a person could be charged under Florida Statute 784.048, which prohibits harassment, stalking or cyberstalking. A violation of this statute is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail. However, if the individual violates this statute and makes a threat with the intent to place that person in “reasonable fear” of death or bodily injury to themselves or someone close to them, the crime is bumped up to a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
In one recent case, a West Palm Beach man was charged with writing a threat to kill or injure, despite the fact that he never explicitly said, “I will kill you.” The alleged threat was directed toward his ex-wife. He texted her a photograph of himself holding a firearm. He sarcastically thanked her for answering her phone, said he’d be headed to prison soon and told her to “wait and watch. Maybe this afternoon. Got my new gun. See you guys soon.” He then ended his message with an indication he would be at her home, signed with a smiling face emoticon.
On the surface, without knowing the context, those words alone might not appear threatening. Yet when police responded to the woman’s complaint, her ex-husband reportedly revealed to them that it was a “scare tactic.” Such an admission may be enough for prosecutors to secure a conviction – which is yet another example of why you should never talk to police without your attorney if you are suspected of a crime.
In another recent case, a man from Boynton Beach was arrested for aggravated stalking and obscene telephone communication after allegedly threatening to kill a co-worker’s family. According to police, the music industry business relationship had ended on a sour note. The suspect allegedly told another female co-worker that he was upset with the man for not paying $500 owed to him. He told the woman he knew where this man lived and he planned to shot him and his family members. He also warned the woman she should get protection.
He later told police he wasn’t serious, but he couldn’t remember the entire communication because at times he “blacked out” due to anger.
Some 50 years ago, a man in Boston admitted to being a serial killer who raped and killed at least 10 women. He was dubbed “the Boston Strangler.”
Our Fort Lauderdale felony defense attorneys know the notoriety of this case left an indelible impression on people, which is why they continue to discuss it to this day.
However, what’s interesting about the case today is the fact that investigators now say they have a definitive familial DNA match between the confessed and samples taken from one of the victims (the only victim for whom physical evidence still remains). This latest revelation prompted authorities to exhume the body of the suspect to get a more definitive test.
Of course, it’s understandable that this would be noteworthy, as there was no DNA evidence back in 1964, when this one murder occurred. But here’s why it’s even more noteworthy, particularly for defense attorneys: A DNA test conducted back in 2001 showed NO definitive match between the suspect (now deceased) and the victim.
So we’re talking about two modern-day DNA tests conducted on the same samples from the same individuals, which then turned up different results.
Yet, DNA is upheld as the be-all, end-all in so many criminal cases. It’s used not just in murder and sexual battery cases, but also in burglaries, DUIs, and assaults. So disparities like this matter.
In the Boston Strangler case, there was always some suspicion after the suspect confessed that he wasn’t in fact the true killer. His confession was reportedly riddled with errors regarding details of the crimes which were, interestingly enough, the same errors made by the media at the time. This country has a long history of individuals confessing under pressure to crimes they didn’t commit.
There were even some of the victims’ relatives who doubted whether the man serving time was the real killer.
Although he was convicted and was serving a life sentence for the crime, he recanted his earlier confession in 1973, just prior to his death.
Back in 2001, a forensic investigation team took samples of mitochondrial DNA from the suspects brother. That sample was tested against DNA samples from a dried liquid that was found on the body of that final victim. Those samples did not match. At the time, the independent investigators said they could find nothing on the remains that was consistent with the defendant’s DNA.
Then just this year, investigators reportedly secretly trailed a nephew of the deceased defendant, seizing a discarded water bottle and scraping it for DNA. (This later became a point of contention for family members, who say they would have willingly provided a sample.) The results of that DNA test, when compared to the sample found on the victim’s body, was a match of 99.9 percent.
The discrepancy between the two results is troubling for a number of reasons.
The man who lead the forensic team back in 2001 said his evidence didn’t produce a match, meaning they couldn’t prove guilt. Some people, he said, would say that meant the defendant was innocent. But, he said, those are two different things.
The fact that a different result turned up today, a dozen years later, could be the result of different samples being tested by different labs, the former team leader said.
If his theory is true, it would be yet another blow to forensic teams who insist that DNA evidence is always right. If two different teams reach two different results in the same case, clearly one is wrong.
The other theory, as posited by the new forensic team, is that forensic technology has advanced now to a point that we can get more accurate readings today than we could even a decade ago. But we can guarantee you that prosecutors back in 2001 weren’t telling juries there was a chance the DNA evidence they had in hand could be wrong. They aren’t saying that today either, though that is most certainly the case.
Construction on the Broward County courthouse is on schedule, with crews in early July reaching the fifth floor of the 20-story project, on the corner of First Avenue and Southeast Sixth Street.
Our Broward criminal defense lawyers know this project, costing upwards of $275 million, is set to be completed and approved for occupancy by the summer of 2015, should ultimately make the facility more useable once complete.
In addition to the new space for actual court and office use, ground has broken on an additional 500-vehicle parking garage nearby that will serve the complex. Another 1,000-car garage is also nearby.
The 50-year-old structure has in the past been plagued by water damage, mold and other unsafe and unsanitary conditions. This new tower will contain some 70 additional courtrooms, and built to codes that are environmentally responsible and energy efficient.
Crews first began working on the complex back in August, with the construction subcontractor boasting that visible progress was already noted. It’s possible the work could be done prior to the previously-stated deadline.
The water-related issues in the building have been a particular problem since Hurricane Wilma tore across southern Florida in 2005, causing significant damage to the structure. Patches have been piecemeal. Additionally, nearly two dozen employees – current and former – have filed civil lawsuits against the county, claiming they have been sickened as a result of toxic mold and deadly asbestos fibers breathed in during the course of their employment.
While voters in 2006 rejected an even higher-priced version of the new courthouse, which would have resulted in an uptick in property taxes, the county commissioners hammered out a way to reduce costs and cover them through sales taxes.
For now, though, that doesn’t mean much to those who are currently using the old building. It’s business as usual, and the old building won’t be set for demolition until the new one is completely done.
As a safety precaution, street parking has been barred on Sixth Street while the construction continues.
When all is said and done, the courthouse will be situated on a campus of 18 acres that will house the county office building, the courthouse building, the county jail, the energy center and a parking garage. As of right now, those plans also include a series of pedestrian plazas, parks and a riverfront walkway. All of this is expected to accommodate growth through 2030 and beyond.
The new court building is going to consist of about 730,000 square feet, on 1.55 acres. There will be more than 350,000 square feet of administrative office space for various state and federal government agencies, such as the state attorney’s office, sheriff staff and the Clerk of Courts. Courtrooms and hearing rooms will include those for county criminal, juvenile delinquency, juvenile dependency, domestic relations, magistrates, probates, circuit civil and county civil courts.
Hearing rooms will be between 500 and 700 square feet each, while courtrooms will be between 1,000 and 2,200 square feet each.
A 35,000-square foot shell floor will be left available for future expansion, as necessary.
For many years, it was believed in the realm of criminal defense that guilt or innocence could be accurately determined through the use of forensic bite mark evidence.
Fort Lauderdale felony defense attorneys know this type of evidence was primarily presented in cases of sexual assault or homicide. If the aggressor had bitten the alleged victim, bite marks left imprinted on the skin were lifted, analyzed and compared with potential suspects in an attempt to draw a match.
The problem, as the Associated Press recently reported, is that since 2000, at least two dozen men convicted of serious crimes primarily on the basis of bite mark analysis have been exonerated. Many of these individuals spent more than a decade in prison before they were freed.
Part of the biggest issue with bite mark analysis is that, like so many other forms of forensic science, it’s value has historically been dramatically overstated. Jurors hear “science” and “forensic” and assume what they’re about to hear is irrefutable proof. Not so.
In the case of bite mark analysis, what we have seen is that it was primarily conducted by a small group of dentists. These individuals were not governed or monitored or held to any industry-wide standard. In fact, there is no independent study or clear-cut scientific proof whatsoever that bite marks on human skin can be definitively matched to patterns made only by one person’s teeth. And yet, their testimony was often pinpointed as key to the prosecution’s case.
Proponents of the practice say it is valid, and has helped to convict some of the country’s most notoriously violent criminals, one of the most prominent being Ted Bundy.
But the issue may be not so much in the method as with the potential bias of the “expert” who is testifying. Some earn upwards of $5,000 per trial.
Years later, a number of these individuals have come back to publicly reverse their opinions. Some examples of bite mark cases that later proved faulty:
–Two men in Mississippi were charged with rape and murder of two different 3-year-old girls in two separate criminal cases. It was later determined that the bite marks on the girls’ bodies were caused by insects and crawfish.
–A man in New Mexico was jailed for the rape and murder of his stepdaughter. She had bite marks on her neck and sperm on her body. It was not until later that it was learned the suspect had a medical condition that prevented him from even producing sperm.
–An Arizona man served 10 years in prison, three of those on death row, after two trials in which a forensic dentist testified that he made the bite marks on the female victim who was found deceased in the bathroom of a bar where he worked at the time. It was only later that DNA evidence cleared him.
With the advent of DNA evidence, bite mark analysis has become more and more obsolete. We know that federal law enforcement agencies no longer use it, and the American Dental Association refuses to recognize it.
But it’s important that we not forget about it entirely. The reason is because it was once held up in courtrooms across the country has definitive proof. It was only later – after significant damage was done and innocent lives were forever scarred – that we learned this wasn’t true.
We need to apply that same kind of critical thinking when we approach DNA and other types of forensic evidence in the courtroom.
Florida Criminal Lawyers