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Thursday, April 07, 2016

THE ZEN OF MISTRIALS

Silence can be golden. It can be a powerful courtroom weapon. (ASA John Kastrenakis sitting silently in court for several minutes during closing argument in the Joyce Cohen murder trial. (Now Judge)  Kastrenakis was showing to the jury the impact of how long the defendant waited to call the police after her husband was killed-by hit men she had arranged. Go to West Palm and ask Judge K about it. He will be happy to tell you the story.) 

Which brings us to Merchant v. State, where one Dwayne Merchant was on trial for first degree murder. As his fate was in the hands of the jury, the bailiff brought to the court's attention that the alternate was the brother of one of the jurors deliberating. 

The court had a bit of a meltdown. It confronted the two jurors and chastised them for not mentioning they were related when the court inquired at the beginning of voire dire if any jurors knew anyone else. 

But what the court didn't do was: 1) Actually inquire of the jurors if they were related;
2) Ask the jurors if they had spoken about the case;
3) Ask the defendant if he consented to the mistrial. 

As the scene unfolded, the defense attorney wisely remained silent. The court declared a mistrial. The defense then moved to dismiss the case for double jeopardy. Judge Tinkler-Mendez denied the motion. Au contraire said our 3rd DCA and Judge Emas: the motion should have been granted. The conviction was reversed and the case remanded with instructions that Mr. Merchant be discharged. 

A Rumpole "Well done. Well done indeed." goes out to appellate ace Andy Kawel for the resounding victory. 


Thereafter, the case was reset for trial. Merchant filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, contending that he did not consent to the mistrial, that there was no manifest necessity for the trial court’s sua sponte declaration of a mistrial, and that retrial was therefore barred by double jeopardy. In opposition, the State contended that by not affirmatively objecting to the mistrial, and in absence of demonstrable bad faith by the State, Merchant had essentially consented to the mistrial. The State did not agree with the defense’s characterization that the court declared a mistrial sua sponte

As noted by the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Dinitz, 424 U.S. 600 (1976), and reaffirmed by the Florida Supreme Court in Thomason, The distinction between mistrials declared by the court sua sponte and mistrials granted at the defendant's request or with his consent is wholly consistent with the protections of the Double Jeopardy Clause. Even when judicial or prosecutorial error prejudices a defendant's prospects of securing an acquittal, he may nonetheless desire “to go to the first jury and, perhaps, end the dispute then and there with an acquittal.” Thomason, 620 So. 2d at 1237 (quoting Dinitz, 424 U.S. at 608.)

Doubt about the appropriateness of a mistrial is resolved in favor of the defendant, and the State “must demonstrate ‘manifest necessity’ for the mistrial, a requirement that has been part of this country’s jurisprudence since 1824.” Thomason, 620 So. 2d at 1237 (internal citations omitted). Manifest necessity requires that there be a “manifestly urgent and absolute necessity” for declaring a mistrial. Id. at 1239 (quoting State v. Grayson, 90 So. 2d 710, 713 (Fla. 1956)). Moreover, manifest necessity requires that the trial court evaluate and discuss available alternatives prior to declaring a mistrial where the defendant does not consent to such an action. “Manifest necessity for declaring a mistrial without the defendant’s concurrence may be demonstrated only if the trial court has considered and rejected all possible alternatives.” Torres v. State, 808 So. 2d 234, 235 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001). See also Thomason, 620 So. 2d at 1238 (observing that manifest necessity requires “trial judges, at the very least, to evaluate and discuss available alternatives before declaring a mistrial over the objection of the defendant.”) 

And now we get to the power of silence. In the face of Judge Tinkler-Mendez declaring a mistrial, the defense remained silent. 

The State contended below, and on appeal, that Merchant should be deemed to have “consented” to the mistrial because neither he nor his counsel voiced an objection, thus waiving his right to later assert a double jeopardy bar to retrial. However, this position is without merit, as the law on this point is well-established: a defendant’s mere failure to object to a declaration of mistrial is not tantamount to consent. See State v. Grayson, 90 So. 2d 710, 713 (Fla. 1956) (noting that “silence of the defendant on trial for a crime or his failure to object” does not constitute consent to the trial court’s declaration of a mistrial); 

Thus, absent the defendant’s consent to the declaration of a mistrial, retrial is barred by double jeopardy unless the State meets its “heavy burden to show that the mistrial was justified by manifest necessity.” Spaziano, 429 So. 2d at 1346. The record in the instant case reveals no manifest necessity for declaring a mistrial and further reveals that the trial court failed to evaluate, discuss or consider available alternatives before declaring a mistrial and discharging the jury. 

The trial court’s decision to declare a mistrial, without the consent of the defendant, appears to have resulted from a series of assumptions and inferences, rather than from competent record evidence. Even if we were to accept the assumption that Kira and Kevin are brother and sister, this surely did not—without more—necessitate a mistrial. There is nothing in the record to indicate that Kira and Kevin heard the trial court’s request, made to the entire venire at the commencement of the jury selection process, for jurors to notify the court if any prospective jurors knew each other. Similarly, there is no evidence in the record that Kira and Kevin discussed the testimony or evidence with each other, or otherwise violated the trial court’s daily admonitions to the jury.

Thus, the only information the trial court had before it was a statement from the bailiff that Kira and Kevin were siblings and that Kevin (having been discharged as an alternate juror) was waiting outside the courtroom to drive Kira home. This alone was hardly sufficient to warrant a mistrial. However, the court did not question the bailiff in open court or permit the attorneys to do so. The court did not bring Kevin Criado into the courtroom to question him or permit the attorneys to do so. The court did not bring Kira Criado into the courtroom to question her or permit the attorneys to do so. The court acknowledged the option of conducting an inquiry, but failed to engage in one.

The court did not ask the defense for its suggestions or inquire whether the defendant agreed to a mistrial. The court did not solicit or receive any input from the State or defense regarding any possible alternatives to a mistrial. Instead, the court simply declared a mistrial, concluding it had “no option.” 

The court’s conclusions were based almost entirely on assumption, inference and speculation. Nowhere are these conclusions confirmed on the record, particularly the central assumptions that Kira and Kevin are siblings and that they discussed the evidence or testimony during the course of the trial. The trial court erred in failing to conduct any inquiry and, by relying instead on assumption, inference and speculation, abused its discretion in concluding that a mistrial was justified by manifest necessity. 

At some point enough should be enough. The trial court was chastised repeatedly throughout this opinion. But even in the conclusion, Judge Emas hammers it home: 

The trial court’s failure to make an inquiry, develop a proper record, and consider alternatives before declaring a mistrial forecloses a conclusion that a mistrial was even warranted, let alone one supported by manifest necessity. Given that the mistrial was declared without the defendant’s consent, and in the absence of manifest necessity, double jeopardy precluded a retrial.7 We are therefore compelled to vacate the judgment and sentence on Count One of the Indictment, and remand with instructions to enter an order discharging Defendant as to Count One. 

All because the defense attorney kept his mouth shut when the court declared a mistrial. Well done. 

It's Masters Weekend, which means we will be at our favourite watering hole watching the action at Augusta. 

See you in court. 

18 comments:

CAPTAIN JUSTICE said...


THE CAPTAIN REPORTS:

Give the props to the Trial Attorney. After the PD filed a conflict, RCA was appointed. But then the defendant hired private counsel. He is:

Law Office of A. Antonio Tomas
815 Ponce De Leon Blvd Ste 210
Coral Gables, FL 33134-3038
United States

Antonio is an exceptional attorney. He is Board Certified as a Tax Lawyer.

Cap Out .....
Captain4Justice@gmail.com

La Cucaracha said...

Ocho quince, represent!

Anonymous said...

You should correct Andy's last name: it is Kawel, not Kavel.

Anonymous said...

Ink a dink
a bottle of ink
the best judge in the building
is still named Tink.

Anonymous said...

One of those moments that a defense attorney cannot translate into anything remotely understandable to a lay person.

"You mean this guy killed someone? A real victim, with a family that had to bury him? With kids who will not have him at their HS graduations? The killer was convicted of this, beyond a reasonable doubt? But he walks? Because the judge... inferred that someone who said 'that's my sibling' was related by blood, without putting on the record that the sibling was related by blood? And so the guy walks? This is our system? Fuck lawyers."

Anonymous said...

This is the result you get when you put an ex-bottom feeding defense lawyer like Tinkler-Mendez in such an important position. She is simply not qualified to be trying serious cases. Shame on her. Terrible result for the family of the victim and for justice.

Anonymous said...

Typical of Tinkler-Mendez and her bailiff; she likes to micromanage everything and everyone!

old guy said...

Stupid Judge -- stupid result. Stupid prosecutor. Stupid defense attorney.
Yippee. A new low.
Why is this worth a blog??

Anonymous said...

I'm a civil attorney (never done criminal) and always enjoy reading this blog. This is one of the most interesting posts I've read in a long time and I've learned a lot from it. Thank you. A question: why did the State argue below and on appeal that the defense "consented" to mistrial through its silence where, as the Third DCA cited, there are at least two cases on point squarely contradicting that argument. The Third called the argument (p11 of the Opinion) "without merit." The law seems to be well established that not objecting to the declaration of mistrial by the defense is not considered consent. So why did the State argue the opposite of the law?

Anonymous said...

Yes, let's all sleep better tonight knowing a murderer will go free because of the relationship between a juror and an alternate juror (who didn't even contribute to the verdict).

Rumpole said...

Lets leave the "bottom feeder" comments about of this. Judge Tinkler-Mendez is not only a fine judge, but she is dedicated and one of the hardest working judges in the building. She tries probably fifty plus cases a year which averages to one a week. On Friday afternoons when most judges are on the tennis or gold course or home, she is consistently in trial.

We all make mistakes, and clearly she made one here and I am sure no one is more upset about it than she is. Try enough cases and you are going to blow one. This is hers. What needs to be remembered are the hundreds of cases she has presided over during the last few years she was in backup where no mistakes were made and justice through a conviction or acquittal occurred.

You want to say she blew this one? I am sure she would agree she made a mistake. But that doesn't mean it is fair to attack her when she was in private practice. She was a well respected appellate lawyer working on cases with some of the top private defense attorneys in the country. So make your criticism fit the subject and don't take cheap shots or I won't post them.

Rumpole said...

I'm sleeping just fine knowing the Constitution still matters. This guy wasn't Son Of Sam (not that it should matter) and lots of lawyers are emailing me that he was wrongfully convicted for a number of reasons beyond this and the 3rd found this was the strongest argument for reversal.

Claude Erskine - Browne said...

11:57
Why attack the defense attorney. That attorney did the hardest thing for any attorney to do , the attorney kept their mouth shut. They did not consent to the Judges sui sponte mistrial and because of that got a reversal. Sounds like good lawyering.

Anonymous said...

What does it mean to "practice on a high level"

Anonymous said...

I think Tinkler-Mendez means well and works hard. I also think she micromanages and often steps out of her neutral and detached magistrate role. I think that is true of many judges however. She has a problem with sua sponte orders. Her closing argument order is ridiculous. Let the other side object. Hopefully this will be a lesson to her to get out of the way and let the lawyers do their jobs. On the issue of Mr. Merchant, the Defendant who hit the lotto in this case: if you speak with some of the people who know about his case, many will tell you that they think he was innocent. Defense Attorneys rarely think their clients are innocent. So before we get all "a murder walked free on a technicality" preachy, take solace in the fact that an man who might have been innocent got a second chance.

Anonymous said...

No comments about Judge lawsuit against country club?

Anonymous said...

I have never been a prosecutor or a judge, but I always presumed that the first lesson they teach you at kiddie prosecutor or judge school: Don't allow for a sua sponte mistrial. But maybe that's just me.

Really Old Guy said...

Maybe I'm way too old, but back before there was a Pds office lawyers hung around criminal court and represented defendants when a judge asked. Sometimes the judge could get the county to throw the lawyer 50 bucks, but normally the lawyer was repaid when the judge handed his card (it was always a man) to a client with money looking for a lawyer.
Old Frank Connors was such a guy back in the day. But what he really did was hustle golf. Being a criminal lawyer was just something for him to do to declare a 5K a year to the IRS.

I was a young guy who had played on the U Texas golf team and met Connors and he took me out and of course he hustled me. I was full of myself so we played 18 5$ Nassau and I won ten bucks. Then we played a $25 Nassau and I swept him for $75. Of course I was hungering for more. I was greedy and earning about $200/month in law so we played a $100 Nassau and pressed each nine and he swept me for $600. I was hustled and he began to teach me the golf hustle.

I remember this because every Masters week I think about the great double hustle Connors pulled off first against Jackie Gleason, who was a notorious Golf bettor, and then a few golf pros the following weeks after the Masters. If Rumpole lets me, I'll post it later.

PS I don't make it to court anymore. I don't make it out of the damn house much anymore. I love the blog. It keeps me in the loop and brings back the best years of my life. Keep it up Mr. R.