When Can “Newly Discovered Evidence” Affect a Criminal Conviction?
The purpose of a criminal trial is for a jury to weigh the available evidence and deliver a verdict. But there are situations where new evidence may come to light after the verdict is entered. When this happens, is it possible for the defendant to seek a new trial based on newly discovered evidence?
Under Florida law, a defendant can ask for such “postconviction relief” within two years of the date of their judgment and sentence. There is an exception to this rule for cases where the newly discovered evidence was “unknown” to the defendant or their attorney “and could not have been ascertained by the exercise of due diligence” within the two-year period. When this exception applies, the defendant must still ask for a new trial within two years of the date they actually discovered the new evidence.
Fifth District Orders New Hearing for Man Serving Life Sentence
Even after the defendant files a timely claim for postconviction relief, the mere fact there is newly discovered evidence does not guarantee a new trial. A judge must then find the evidence presented is of “such nature that it would probably produce an acquittal on retrial.” Put another way, the newly discovered evidence must weaken the criminal case against the defendant to the point where it would create “reasonable doubt” in the minds of a typical jury.
The Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal recently addressed just such a case. In Vega v. State, a jury convicted the defendant in 2001 of the first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse of his then-girlfriend’s three-year-old son. At the trial, the jury heard from the Orange County Medical Examiner, who testified the victim had a torn lip and retinal hemorrhaging. The medical examiner attributed both injuries, and ultimately the victim’s death, to child abuse. And given the defendant admitted he was the only adult alone with the child at the time, the jury naturally concluded he was the abuser.
Eight years later, in 2009, a former deputy medical examiner with Orange County published a report that specifically called the medical examiner’s testimony into question. The report explained that when the child’s autopsy was performed in 1999, it was generally accepted in the medical community that “short distance” falls could not lead to a child’s death. That is to say, at the time of the defendant’s trial, the medical examiner never considered the child’s fatal head injury was the result of an accidental fall. And in fact, the former deputy opined that based on his review of the available evidence, it was “absolutely reasonable that [the victim] died from an accidental fall,” and that the medical examiner’s trial testimony was not “scientifically sound and not based upon principles of reasonable scientific and medical certainty.”
This was more than enough to justify granting the defendant at least an evidentiary hearing on his petition for postconviction relief, the Fifth District concluded. It would be “manifestly unjust” to allow the defendant’s conviction–and life sentence–to stand based on the testimony of a “medical examiner whose work has been called into doubt” by credible newly discovered evidence.
Speak with a Florida Criminal Defense Attorney Today
If you are facing criminal charges of any kind, you have a right to confront and cross-examine the evidence against you in court. A qualified Miami criminal lawyer can represent you in all stages of your case. Contact the Law Office of Julia Kefalinos today at 305.676.9545 if you need immediate legal advice or assistance.