Florida Appeals Court Orders New Trial in Sexual Battery Case After Judge Excludes Key Witness Testimony
In any criminal trial, the defendant has a constitutional right to “confront” the witnesses against them. This includes not just the right to cross-examine one’s accuser, but also to present evidence that may call into question the accuser’s motives, or offer the jury an alternative explanation for what transpired. While judges have the discretion to admit or exclude such evidence, the defendant must ultimately be allowed to present a defense within the boundaries of the law. If the defendant is denied that right, any conviction is subject to reversal.
Take this recent decision from the Florida Second District Court of Appeal, Alvarado-Contreras v. State. The story of this case essentially involves three people: The defendant, his then-girlfriend, and his girlfriend’s sister. Prosecutors charged the defendant with committing sexual battery against the sister.
At trial, the defendant wanted to call his girlfriend as a witness. His attorney explained that the girlfriend would testify that her sister was only testifying at the defendant to get back at her. Specifically, the girlfriend would tell the jury that her daughter had previously accused the sister’s then-husband of sexual battery, which in turn had led to his deportation. The girlfriend said her sister believed this was a false accusation, and that the sister’s testimony against the defendant was essentially an act of revenge.
The trial judge did not allow the girlfriend to testify for the jury, however, holding that under Florida law, a defendant could not attack the credibility of a witness by offering proof that she “committed a specific act of misconduct.” The jury proceeded to find the defendant guilty of sexual battery. After the judge denied the defendant’s motion for a new trial, the defendant appealed.
The Second District held the defendant should receive a new trial based on the judge’s incorrect decision to exclude the girlfriend’s testimony. The appellate court said the “specific act of misconduct” rule did not apply to this case. That rule covers situations where “a party seeks to introduce a witness’s prior bad act in order to impeach her credibility.” Here, the girlfriend’s testimony would have served to suggest her sister had a “motive to testify falsely.” The jury might have chosen to disregard the girlfriend’s testimony and convict the defendant anyway, but the Second District said the defendant was still entitled to present the evidence.
The appellate court further rejected the prosecution’s argument that even if the trial judge’s decision was wrong, it was a “harmless error” that did not affect the outcome of the trial. The Second District said the state could not, however, prove “beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict.” Therefore, a new trial was the only remedy.
Contact Orlando Criminal Defense Lawyer Jose Baez Today
In the course of any criminal trial, the judge will issue many decisions that can have an effect on the outcome. It is therefore important to work with an experienced Orlando criminal defense attorney who will zealously defend your rights in court. If you have been charged with a crime and need representation, contact the Baez Law Firm today to schedule a free consultation.