Criminal Trials in St. Petersburg

  • Generally

A fundamental principle of the American criminal justice system is the right to a trial by jury. Florida law dictates that in all criminal prosecutions, an accused person shall have the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury, in the county where the crime was committed. For some people, a jury trial is a viable option and presents the best opportunity for a favorable outcome. The decision to take a case to trial, and particularly a felony case, is a serious one and should be carefully considered.

In Florida, "twelve persons shall constitute a jury to try all capital cases (e.g. first degree murder cases) and six persons shall constitute a jury to try all other criminal cases". In either scenario, the verdict must be unanimous. Almost always, the state and defense will select at least one "alternate" juror. In most (if not all) of the felony cases I have tried, there were two alternates chosen from the panel of prospective jurors. This way, if one of the jurors becomes sick during the trial, is injured, or is disqualified from serving, the alternate can assume that other person's role. Otherwise, the alternate jurors are discharged after the court reads its final instructions to the jury; alternates do not deliberate.

A person may, under Florida law, waive a jury trial in writing, with the consent of the state. In this scenario, the judge is the sole finder of fact, and will render a verdict. These are called "non-jury" or "bench" trials and typically occur in less serious cases, or in situations where the accused person is seeking to preserve an issue for appellate review. In any event, waiving your right to a jury trial is something that should be discussed thoroughly with your lawyer well in advance.

The verdict, whether rendered by a judge or a jury, must be based solely on the evidence and testimony introduced during the course of the trial and on the applicable law. Pre-conceived thoughts, feelings or biases on part of a prospective juror, that would play a role in his or her deliberations, are a basis to challenge that prospective juror. If the challenge is successful, that person is excused from further proceedings and does not hear the case. Determining the existence of these pre-conceived notions or biases is the primary purpose of jury selection.

The State has the burden of proving each element, of each charge, beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard of proof in a criminal case is the highest standard of proof in the American legal system. The accused person is presumed innocent unless and until the state proves its allegations beyond a reasonable doubt. Further, the accused has no burden of proof; he or she is not required to prove or disprove anything. The accused has an absolute and unqualified right to remain silent which means he or she cannot be compelled to take the stand and testify in his or her own defense and the decision not to testify cannot be used as evidence of guilt.

Jury trials will typically commence with opening statements. This is an opportunity for both sides to present an overview of what they expect the evidence to show. The state makes its opening remarks first. The defense may elect to make an opening statement immediately after the state's opening remarks, they may choose to make their opening statement immediately before putting a case on (if they elect to put one on) or may waive it entirely. In bench trial situations, where the judge is already aware of the facts, both the state and the defense may elect to waive opening statements.

In any criminal trial situation, the state puts its case on first. Often times, before the first witness is called, either the state or the defense will advise the court that they are "invoking the rule". Once the rule is invoked, all testifying witnesses, except the witness on the stand, must remain outside the courtroom until they care called to testify. This is done so that each witnesses' testimony is based on personal, first hand knowledge and observations and is in no way influenced by what they hear from the stand while another witness is testifying. The defendant, through his or her attorney, has the right to a thorough and sifting cross-examination of the state's witnesses. Following the defendant's cross examination, the court will allow a brief re-direct examination, by the state, of the testifying witness. Most judges will not allow a "re-cross".

Once the state has rested, the defense is entitled to make a motion for a judgment of acquittal. Under Florida law, "if, at the close of the evidence for the state, the court is of the opinion that the evidence is insufficient to warrant a conviction, it may enter a judgment of acquittal". In other words, a judgment of acquittal is proper where the evidence and testimony, presented during the state's case-in-chief, do not support the charge. The court must view the evidence and testimony in a light most favorable to the non-moving party (the state). If granted, the case is disposed of and the accused is free to go without conviction. If the motion is denied (and it usually is), the defendant has the option of calling witnesses in his or her defense and may also elect to testify. If that occurs, the motion is renewed once the defense rests. If the second motion for judgment of acquittal is denied (and it usually is), the case will go to the jury. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, Florida law allows the motion to be renewed within 10 days following the reception of the verdict. At this point, it is usually referred to as a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict.

If the defendant elects to put a case on, the State is entitled to cross examine the defendant's witnesses in the same manner the defense cross examined the state's witnesses. As is the case with all witnesses, if the defendant elects to testify, the jury is entitled to know whether the defendant has any prior felony convictions, any convictions involving dishonesty or false statement, and if so, how many. This is not done to show that the defendant has the propensity to commit crimes, but as a means of allowing the jury to weigh the credibility of the defendant's testimony. The reasoning underlying this rule of evidence is that people with felony convictions, and convictions for crimes involving dishonesty, are less believable than those who don't. The decision to testify is something that an accused person should carefully consider, and discuss with his or her attorney, especially if the jury is to become aware of impeachable prior convictions.

If the defense elects to put a case on (that is, to call witnesses including the defendant himself), the state may put on a rebuttal case thereafter. This involves calling witnesses back to the stand to rebut, contradict, or better explain evidence introduced by the defense. Of course, the defense is entitled to thoroughly cross examine the state's rebuttal witnesses.

The trial will conclude with closing arguments. The state presents first and is entitled to a rebuttal argument following the defense presentation (the defense presents between the state's initial and rebuttal arguments). This was, however, not always the case. Until a few years ago, the defendant was entitled to make an initial closing argument and then a rebuttal argument after the state's closing arguments if the defendant put on no evidence other than his or her own testimony. Often, this would discourage the defense from introducing potentially favorable evidence because, in doing so, they would not have the "last word" with the jury. Since the law in that regard has changed, the state is entitled to present their closing arguments first and last whether the defense introduces evidence or not. Closing arguments are the attorney's opportunity to relay to the jury what they believe the evidence has shown and how the law applies. Closing arguments are not evidence, and the jury cannot construe them as such.

Often times, the jury may have some difficulty reaching a unanimous verdict and will announce to the court that they cannot agree. When this happens, the court will read what is called, in Florida, the "Allen" charge. Here, the court explains to the jury that while they may disagree about the facts of the case, they cannot disagree about the law - the law is as the court instructed. The court then asks the jury to continue their deliberations and take turns, telling each of the other jurors about any weaknesses in their own position. This instruction usually remedies the problem. Where it does not, and the jury is hopelessly deadlocked, the court will declare a mistrial and the case will, in all likelihood, be tried again before another jury. Under most circumstances, the state is precluded from trying the defendant twice as it violates the double jeopardy clause of the Constitution. The declaration of a mistrial, however, constitutes an exception.

If the defendant is found guilty, the court has the authority to sentence the defendant up to the statutory maximum and is required to impose any minimum sentence that the law dictates based on the nature of the charge. If the accused is found not guilty, then he or she is free to go and is not deemed to have a criminal conviction. Depending on the circumstances, the accused may be in a position to seal or expunge their record following a not guilty verdict. Here, double jeopardy principles do apply and the state is constitutionally barred from re-initiating prosecution.

  • Resources

  1. For more information on jury trials in the Tampa Bay area, see our article on HG. Org: St. Petersburg Criminal Trial Attorney.
  2. The National Trial Lawyers: St. Petersburg Criminal Attorney Donald J. Kilfin.
  • The Bottom Line

Whether your case is pending in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tampa, or a surrounding area, the principles outlined above apply. To discuss the merits your case, and whether a trial is your best option, contact The Kilfin Law Firm, P.C. for a free initial consultation. Donald J. Kilfin is an experienced St. Petersburg criminal trial attorney.