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Florida Appellate Court Reverses Two Life Sentences

Florida Appellate Court Reverses Two Life Sentences for Charges of Sexual Battery Upon Two Minors Under 12 Years Old.

The court's ruling establishes important guidelines for jury instructions in rape cases.

In the case of Brown v. State, 34 Fla. L. Weekly D1016a, 2009 WL1424047 (Fla. 2d DCA May 22, 2009) the court reversed two life sentences for sexual battery committed upon two persons under the age of 12. The court was called upon to answer a significant question concerning proper jury instructions in rape cases.

Sexual battery, especially of a minor under 12 years of age is one of the most serious crimes for which a person can be convicted. It not only carries a life sentence, but even the stigma of being accused of such a charge has a devastating impact. While such a crime is reprehensible, it is also subject to false allegations by alleged victims for many different reasons.

I have on numerous occasions been involved in cases where minor children have made allegations of sexual abuse that have been shown to be untrue. Such false allegations can be caused by any number of reasons, including the desire to live with the non-custodial parent after a divorce and the dislike of a stepparent; the remarriage of both parents; discipline which a child resents; and the failure of a parent, stepparent or relative to provide certain gifts or things which the child wants.

Unfortunately, those who investigate these crimes often believe that whatever the child says is true. I have actually been told by sex crimes investigators that victims do not lie. This obviously is incorrect.

Mr. Brown was sentenced to two life sentences for sexual battery on his two nieces. The crimes were alleged to have occurred between 1983 and 1987. In 2006, over 20 years after the alleged crimes started, the two sisters reported the matter to law enforcement officers.

There was absolutely no corroborating evidence to support the allegations, nor any admissions of guilt by Mr. Brown, nor any evidence of other crimes committed by Mr. Brown.

The court noted that in addition to no corroboration there had been no complaints of sexual abuse by either of the alleged victims until 2006, and no other witness corroborated their testimony, nor was there any physical evidence of any type introduced.

The prosecutor asked the court to give an instruction based upon section 794.022(1), Florida Statutes. This statute provides that the testimony of the victim need not be corroborated in a prosecution under section 794.011, Florida Statutes (the sexual battery statute).

The defendant's attorney objected to the instruction however, the court overruled the objection and gave the following instruction to the jury "the testimony of the victim need not be corroborated in a prosecution for sexual battery." This was the issue which the court considered. The defendant raised no other issue in the appeal.

The court then analyzed the jury instruction and noted that it was a comment on the evidence.

Florida discourages judicial comment on the evidence by the trial judge to the jury. It has long been recognized in Florida that great care should always be observed by the judge to avoid any remark to the jury that is capable directly or indirectly of conveying what view the judge takes of the case, or that states the judge's opinion as to the weight, character, or credibility of any evidence of testimony. Raulerson v. State, 102 So. 2d 281 (Fla. 1958).

Section 90.106, Florida Statutes, also limits the judge from commenting on the evidence, wherein it states that "a judge may not sum up the evidence or comment to the jury upon the weight of the evidence, the credibility of the witnesses, or the guilt of the accused."

The court then goes into the history of section 749.022(1). This statute originated in 1974 as part of a change to the sexual battery statute. The statute set forth that testimony of the victim need not be corroborated in prosecutions under the sexual battery statute.

When this change was made to the standard jury instruction on rape in Florida it contained the following:

"If the testimony of the female is not supported by other evidence, her testimony should be rigidly examined, especially as it relates to the nature and extent of the force used and as it relates to the question of whether consent was ever finally given...."

This instruction was omitted from the standard jury instructions following a change in the statutes. Also, in 1983, section 794.022(1) was amended to delete the clause authorizing the trial court to instruct the jury on the weight of the evidence and was later confirmed by a Florida Supreme Court opinion, Marr v. State, 494 So. 2d 1139 (Fla. 1986).

The court in Marr noted that the credibility of witnesses is a proper subject for argument by the attorneys, but not comment by the court.

The appellate court in Brown concluded that the special instruction given was likely to confuse and mislead the jury. It also noted that section 794.022(1), Florida Statutes was directed at appellate review of convictions and the sufficiency of evidence in sexual battery cases. This is an entirely separate question from whether the jury should accept the uncorroborated testimony; and, therefore, the instruction should not have been given to the jury.

The court reversed both convictions.

This case is not unique in Florida or other states. Here, a prosecution was based upon allegations that were not made until 19 years after the alleged criminal conduct ended. Such a case involves problems for both the state as well as the defense. In order to avoid conviction of an innocent person jury instructions which unfairly tilt the case to the state's advantage should be avoided. The jury instruction in this case is an example of when an improper jury instruction can lead to an improper conviction.