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Woman Sentenced to Life in Prison Gets Early Release because of a Legal Error

Woman Sentenced to Life in Prison Gets Early Release because of a Legal Error

Nearly 25 years ago, an Indian Harbour Beach woman was charged with first-degree felony murder and aggravated child abuse. It was alleged that the woman, while watching several children, took her 2-year-old stepson to the bathroom after he wet his pants. When she emerged a little while later, she was holding the boy's lifeless body in her arms.

The woman said that he slipped from her grasp, which led to his death. However, the State argued that the injuries sustained were too severe to have been caused by a fall.

Then-Attorney Did Not Object to Improper Jury Instructions

During the trial, the jury was instructed that “malicious,” concerning the aggravated child abuse offense, meant "wrongfully, intentionally, and without legal justification or excuse." A definition that was inaccurate and lowered the prosecution's burden of proof, which the woman's defense counsel at the time knew, yet failed to object to the improper jury instructions.

The woman was found guilty of both offenses and was sentenced to life in prison. However, she appealed the decision, stating that she received ineffective counsel. She asserted that her then-lawyer should have requested that correct instructions be read to the jury. Additionally, in 2002, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Reed v. State that "malicious" should be defined as "with spite, ill will, hatred or evil intent."

Client Received Ineffective Counsel

In 2008, the 5th District Court of Appeals heard the woman's case. It stated that it agreed with the trial court that the Reed decision did not apply to her case. The Supreme Court said that its ruling could only retroactively apply to cases that had not been finalized. The woman's case had already been decided by the time the Reed decision was made.

However, the Court of Appeals decided that the woman did receive ineffective counsel because her attorney knew the definition was improper but did not follow the correct course of action to remedy that.

Funk, Szachacz & Diamond Took on the Case

In 2008, the woman was granted a hearing, but because of various reasons, it never took place. That is until her parents enlisted the help of our team at Funk, Szachacz & Diamond. We took on the case with the attention and effective counsel it deserved. Over the years, we submitted appeals and filings, and made arguments on our client's behalf. We reviewed every detail of the case to work toward a favorable outcome for her.

In 1999, our client was offered a 25-year plea deal. However, her then-attorney advised her to turn it down and said that if she were found guilty, she would be eligible for parole after 25 years. That was incorrect. At the time, Florida did not offer parole for murder charges.

Funk, Szachacz & Diamond, through aggressive and unwavering defense, argued that ineffective counsel impacted the outcome of our client's case. The 5th District Court of Appeals agreed and ruled that the original plea offer needed to be made again.

Our client pleaded no contest to the charges and was released from custody on the morning of January 16, 2020. Attorney Kepler B. Funk was proud to represent this case, and after the hearing said, "She [had] been ignored and mistreated for over 10 years, and we're grateful we had a judge who honestly and thoughtfully listened to our arguments and reviewed the case thoroughly."

If you have been accused of an offense in Melbourne, get the dedicated and tenacious legal counsel you need by calling Funk, Szachacz & Diamond at (321) 360-4446 or contacting us online.

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