Bad wording in jury instructions forced Florida judges to throw out more than 100 murder and attempted murder convictions, a Tampa Bay Times examination of state records found. Dozens of killers and would-be killers have received new trials or the chance to make plea agreements. More than a quarter have received shorter prison sentences, sometimes dramatically shorter. An Orlando man, serving life in prison for killing a longtime friend, had his sentence cut to 18 years. A man who shot and permanently disabled a retiree had his 30-year sentence reduced to 12 years
The faulty phrase, which remained in jury instructions for 16 years, forced many victims and their family members back into court to relive the worst tragedies of their lives. Attorney Richard Summa, who filed the original appeal over the problematic wording, said, “It’s absolutely frightening that something like that can go on and on and on.” From 1994 to 2010, Florida’s standard instructions stated that jurors could convict someone of “manslaughter by act” only if the suspect “intentionally caused the death of” the victim. Contrary to Florida law, it said jurors could find defendants guilty of manslaughter only if they actually intended to kill their victims. The faulty jury instructions effectively made it harder to convict someone of manslaughter than of the much more serious crime of second-degree murder, which can carry a life sentence.