Today's Miami Herald reports that after three weeks of testimony, the State of Florida, represented by an Assistant State Attorney, has rested its case in the bribery and grand theft trial of former Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.
Now we all know from TV that lawyers will announce in court, "I rest my case." Legally speaking, it is said during the course of a jury trial to inform the court that one of the parties has no further evidence to present. In the context of a criminal case, the parties are always the State and the accused (the defense).
As is customary at the close of the State's case, Spence-Jones' criminal defense attorney moved for a judgment of acquittal.
A motion for a judgment of acquittal is made by the defense outside the presence of the jury after the State rests. It is a request from the defense that the Judge dismiss all of the charges, one or more of the charges, or reduce the degree of one or any of the charges, due to the State's failure to successfully prove the elements of the offense. This is not a high standard at this point in the trial. If and when the case goes to the jury, the jury must find a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That is an extremely high standard.
At the judgment of acquittal (JOA) phase, the Judge need only find that the State has made a "prima facie" case, which in Latin essentially means that the State has at least proven, to some degree, the basic elements of the case. This is a legal standard, as the Judge must determine whether the basic elements of the charge have at least been established. Issues of fact and questions of witness credibility are left to the jury to decide.
In the Spence-Jones trial, the defense made a motion for a JOA. In determining which way to rule, the judge repeatedly questioned the prosecutor on his theory that the commissioner committed bribery and grand theft.
According to the Herald, the Judge stated, "I'm finding it difficult to understand the state's theory,"
Having more than 40 trials under my belt, I know that when the State's theory of the case is not clear to the judge, it is likely not clear to a jury. Also, when a judge is going back and forth over whether to grand a motion for JOA, it is possible that the judge will grant the JOA after the close of the defense's case.
As you know, the accused need not present evidence. However, regardless of whether they do or not, the accused is entitled to bring forth a second motion for judgment of acquittal. This is the last chance for the judge to decide that there is not enough evidence of a crime for the case to go to the jury.
Granting a judgment of acquittal is rare, so it came as no surprise that the Judge in the Spence-Jones trial denied the defense's request and permitted them to present their case.
If they chose to present evidence of their own (including the testimony of Ms. Spence-Jones, should she choose to testify), the defense may now discredit the prosecution's allegation that Spence-Jones used her position as a city official to get a prominent developer to write a $12,500 check to a sham charity secretly controlled by Spence-Jones out of her City Hall office.
But Spence-Jones' criminal defense lawyer has argued that the solicitation was lawful, and was made for a legitimate charity only to benefit the citizens of Spence-Jones' district.
The developer, the State's "victim" of the alleged grand theft, testified last week that he expected nothing in return for the donation, which he said he would have been willing to make at any time.
I have been following this trial closely, and believe that the evidence in this trial is demonstrating that Ms. Spence-Jones did nothing wrong. At the very least, the lack of evidence creates very strong doubts as to whether a crime was committed at all.
I expect the Judge to either grant the second motion for JOA, or for the jury to return a verdict of not guilty.
Eric Matheny is a criminal defense attorney who serves Miami-Dade and Broward. Eric Matheny has represented many clients in theft-related matters. If you or a loved one are facing prosecution for a theft crime, call today to discuss your case.