Category Archives: Florida

10-Year Anniversary for my Crimcourts Blog

10 years ago I posted my first blog on here. 1,322 posts later we’re still going strong. Not as strong as I used to- I post much less frequently nowadays between keeping busy with the job and growing kids that have gotten involved in all kinds of activity. Thanks to everyone that has sent me post ideas over the years, I wish I could have written a post for all of them. WordPress tells me I’ve had over 285,000 page views and over 180,000 unique visitors, which is kind of crazy.

I thought the anniversary might be a good time for a little trip down memory lane.

My all time most viewed post was a legal update: “”Important Changes to Florida’s DUI Laws: Legistlative Update 2013

Some of the more popular subjects over the years were Zimmerman, Amanda Knox, NFL Cheerleaders, and Ashley Toye (of the Cash Feenz cases). Also, the Sievers case got a lot of attention, though it didn’t seem to have the national appeal that drove up numbers on the others.

One of my favorite subjects was the shark trial, where a man claimed self-defense for taking a shark: “The Shark Trial Recap

Self-defense has been one of the more interesting repeat topics we’ve discussed on crimcourts, probably in part due to timing. I started writing this not too long after the Stand Your Ground Law has been enacted, and the Florida courts have been a trying ground for that policy. Also, being Florida, we’ve seen self-defense claimed for Bears, the aforementioned shark, and even an iguana.

Sometimes I like to think it would be fun to do videos, but I really don’t have the time. I don’t have as much time as I’d like to spend on the blog, as it has been fun, but I’ll keep posting whenever I can find time so follow me here and on Twitter.

Florida Juveniles can now Expunge Certain Records

Juveniles who complete court-ordered diversion programs for several types of charges will now be able to get those records expunged. A bipartisan effort passed the legislature unanimously and was signed into law by Governor DeSantis a few weeks ago. It does not extend to forcible felonies. This is limited to those who complete diversion, which generally involves first-time offenders with non-violent charges that are ultimately dropped upon completion of the diversion programs.

This is another good step to meaningful criminal justice reform. I’d like to see all charges that get dropped eligible for expungement. Right now, some adult charges for people who are acquitted, or even not filed on, cannot be expunged if the alleged offender has a prior conviction, even if it is unrelated. Imagine being acquitted of a false allegation only for the arrest to remain a public record. More work needs to be done for criminal justice reform, but it is always good to see progress.

Club Blu Murder Trial continues after one of the Prosecutors Passes Away

Over the weekend, Assistant State Attorney Anthony Kunasek passed away. Mr. Kunasek was one of two prosecutors handling the trial of Kierra Russ, one of the co-defendants in the shooting at Club Blu several years ago in Fort Myers. Russ is charged with two counts of murder, as well as conspiracy for murder, though she is not alleged to be one of the shooters. The Sheriff’s department and the State Attorney’s Office have confirmed that it was not murder and deemed the death not suspicious. People have been speculating online that there may have been foul play, especially as the sudden death came in the midst of a murder trial with alleged gang affiliations, but there has been no evidence to support that theory, and that is not a likely explanation.

Beyond the tragedy of losing Mr. Kunasek, a long-time employee of the SAO, the State faced a challenge of what do to with the trial. Assistant State Attorney Sara Miller is the lead attorney on the case, and the State has decided to go forward. If the state had decided not to go forward, they could have requested a mistrial under the circumstances. However, had they been granted a mistrial, the Defendant would have challenged the State’s ability to retry the case due to the Constitutional Prohibition against double jeopardy. Generally, the State only gets to try somebody one time. Alternatively, the State could have asked to continue the case for a period of time in order to be prepared to go forward.

Ultimately, the State made the assuredly difficult decision to go forward on Monday without Mr. Kunasek. It was the last day of evidence- the parties had hoped to conclude evidence on Friday, but had a few witnesses left to testify before resting. The case was scheduled for closing arguments today: jury deliberations are now underway. It is a challenging case to prove, as Ms. Russ is being charged as a principal to the crime, as she was not one of the shooters.

This is a sad situation for the legal community. My heart goes out for those who knew Mr. Kunasek, especially his friends and family. I worked with him during my time at the SAO many years ago, and knew him as a talented trial attorney, a sentiment I’ve heard echoed time and again. Condolences for anyone who was affected by his passing.

*UPDATE* The Jury found Kierra Russ Guilty of two counts of second-degree murder and a count of conspiracy to commit murder. She faces life in prison at sentencing on June 6.

Woman Who Stabbed Mother to Death Enters Plea for 15 Years in Prison

Mariya Kelly stabbed her mother one time in the chest. The knife penetrated 9 cm, piercing the membrane around the heart, and puncturing an important artery. Her mother, Melissa Kelly, quickly succumbed to blood loss from the injury. Today, Mariya Kelly entered a plea to Manslaughter charges, and pursuant to an agreement, was sentenced to 15 years in Florida State Prison. Ms. Kelly was just 21-years old when she killer her mother.

Mariya Kelly

Ms. Kelly had claimed self-defense, saying her mother attacker her and struck her in the head prior to her using the knife, with which she had been cutting strawberries in the kitchen. We covered the Stand Your Ground Motion before Judge Branning a few weeks ago, and the court did not find that she was justified in using deadly force that could have allowed the case to be dismissed before trial. She faced a jury trial, and a potential 30-year sentence, before accepting the plea offer.

The Stand Your Ground hearing was emotional, including testimony from family members about the incident and previous disputes with her mother. Several family members also testified at the sentencing hearing today, including her brothers, one of whom testified they hoped she rots in jail, while the other called her a “murderer” and a “monster.” There was also testimony that she had previously been part of a cult known as the “Carbon Nation”, which is known for polygamy and nudism, but there is no indication that had anything to do with the incident involving her mother. Without a doubt, the situation was a tragedy and that the single strike with a deadly weapon tore a family apart. In Florida, convicts must serve 85% of their sentence, so she will not be eligible for release for more than a decade.

Cape Coral Woman Who Stabbed Her Mother to Death Claims Self-Defense

Mariya Kelly, who was arrested in 2020 and charged with Manslaughter with a Weapon in the killing of her mother, filed a Stand Your Ground motion to have her charges dismissed. Essentially, she is arguing that she was justified in using force against her mother in the incident. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law permits the Defense to have the charges thrown out prior to trial unless the state is able to prove the the force was not justified.

It is undisputed in this case that the alleged victim’s death was caused by a knife wielded by Ms. Kelly. The Defense argues that the mother was the aggressor. The legal question is whether the fear claimed by Ms. Kelly justifies her use of deadly force against the victim, who was her mother. There was a single injury from one stab wound to the chest which was fatal.

At the Stand Your Ground hearing today, the Defendant’s brother gave dramatic testimony as a witness to the event. He testified that their mother was unarmed, but that an argument ensued and that the alleged victim took multiple swings at the Defendant, before the Defendant struck her mother one time with the knife. The victim’s mother, the grandmother of the Defendant, testified to a prior incident of the alleged victim beating Ms. Kelly.

Ms. Kelly took the stand to testify about the incident. She testified that her mother got upset and attacked her, flailing wildly and striking her several times about the head and upper torso. She said she was already holding the knife because she was preparing strawberries for her young daughter. She said the victim saw the knife and attacked her, when she wouldn’t put it down. She testified that she was scared, due to the prior beating and since her mother was quite a bit larger than she was (some six inches and 70 pounds). She said she struck her out of fear, one time to stop the attack. She admitted on cross that her mother was unarmed, and did not threaten her verbally, but that she was afraid of what might happen.

The legal question for whether the use of force is justified turns not on whether the victim was armed, but whether the Defendant had a reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury at the time of the offense. While that fear is difficult to show when only one person is armed, it’s not unheard of. The recent Tampa case of Curtis Reeves is a high-profile example. Reeves was involved in a dispute at a movie theater, and the other man threw popcorn at him. Reeves also asked for a dismissal under the Stand Your Ground law, but the motion for immunity was denied. However, he successfully argued self-defense at trial and was acquitted by a jury just last month. Key to his defense was his compelling testimony before the jury about his fear at the time.

It was a sad, difficult day in court today. Regardless of the outcome, the case is clearly a tragedy. The judge denied the motion to dismiss, but the case will proceed to a trial, potentially starting at the end of this month.

Naples Doctor Arrested for Random Shooting in Vermont in 2019

Dr. Jozsef Piri

Police say Dr. Jozsef Piri did not know Roberto Fonseca-Rivera, of Boston, but they have charged him in Fonseca-Riveras homicide along Vermont Rte. 103 in November, 2019. Details are still limited, but police say they have surveillance footage, GPS data, pictures, and other evidence that indicate Dr. Piri was driving his pickup directly in front of Fonseca-Rivera’s delivery truck the day he was killed. Fonseca was found shot to death in the head and neck in his truck, which had been pulled to the side of the road. They zeroed in on the silver Toyota pickup not long after the homicide, and believe Dr. Piri was driving a truck matching that description in the area at the time (he lived in Connecticut and was returning from Vermont.).

Dr. Piri has been arrested in Naples, where he worked as a doctor for Physician’s Regional Hospital. He is awaiting extradition to Vermont where he will face murder charges. The fact pattern suggests a possible road rage situation, but that’s unclear as there are so few details so far.

Police photo of the Toyota

*UPDATE: I found a story from the time of the incident where Vermont Police released a photo of the Toyota pickup they had been looking for. It’s not clear what connection Dr. Piri may have to the truck. Notable, the photo released clearly shows a person sitting in the passenger seat, which means if the truck was involved, there must be a witness. Also, it happened in the middle of the day, between 1 and 1:30 p.m.

Time and Again, the Cover Up Ends up Worse than the Underlying Offense

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office recently released aerial footage from this weekend, when a man fled from deputies, wrecked his stolen vehicle, and jumped off the Edison Bridge into the Caloosahatchee River. He survived the fall, and was fished out by deputies. The footage is dramatic.

LCSO says Bryan Gray was driving a van that had been stolen. Now, Grand Theft Auto is a third degree felony. In Florida, that has a maximum penalty of five years. However, unless someone’s record is really bad, it does not generally score out to mandatory prison time. Since Gray fled, he’s also facing charges of fleeing, with a high speed and property damage enhancement, adding on a second degree felony. That takes his maximum penalty up to 15 years, and greatly increases his scoresheet that could lead to a minimum permissible sentence that is more likely to require prison. Plus, his stunt landed him in a hospital and it could have been much worse.

Another case is exemplar of the coverup far exceeding the underlying offense. This week, Courtney Gainey was sentenced in the death of 14-year-old Allana Staiano. She pled out a few weeks ago to charges of Leaving the Scene of an Accident involving death- literally her crime was fleeing the scene. Had she stayed, it may have merely been an accident and a civil traffic ticket. As it is, she was charged with a first degree felony, exposing her to up to 30 years in prison. The charge carries a four-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, but the minimum was thrown out the window as the judge maxed her out at 30 years. It was suggested that she had been drinking that night, but even if she had been drinking to the point of impairment, a DUI Manslaughter is a less serious offense than leaving the scene. Dui causing death is a second degree felony, again with a maximum 15-year sentence. Her flight from the scene directly exposed her to twice as much time, and the notoriety of the case likely contributed to such a harsh sentence for a first time offense.

Once more the flight, or the cover-up, ends up being more serious than whatever offense one is trying to avoid.

Shot Spotter System in Fort Myers Leads to an Arrest

The City of Fort Myers has instituted a ‘ShotSpotter’ system. This type of system alerts Myers Police when audio detectors are triggered by sounds that it recognizes as a shot from a firearm. The system not only ‘hears’ the shot go off, but can triangulate a location, much in the way cell-towers locate cell phones. It can be a very useful tool, but it can also raise all sorts of issues related to probable cause: such as whether the noise was actually a firearm and how accurate is the location system?

The system went off Wednesday night and ShotSpotter led officers to a home in the city. It was apparently the correct address, as resident Randolph Williams answered the door, bleeding from his head, and with a large pool of blood on the floor. Williams was detained, and officers searched the home. Inside, they found an apparent marijuana grow operation with lights and multiple apparent young and adolescent marijuana plants. Williams was arrested for multiple charges in relation to the grow operation and for resisting arrest.

While the officers found ample evidence for the drug charges, there is an issue with the legality of their search. While the ShotSpotter gives them reasonable grounds to investigate, it’s questionable whether that alone is grounds to search a home without a warrant. The news story appears to suggest they based their search on an exception of exigent circumstances- arguably that they were worried that there was possibly an injured person. Unfortunately for that argument, the injured person was the home owner, and he was already in custody. Whether or not there is an applicable exception to the warrant requirement (which is strictly construed in individuals’ homes) depends on the totality of the facts, to which I am not privy, but it is an interesting issue.

Man Claims Self-Defense in Killing Iguana (Yes, It’s in Florida)

PJ Nilaja Patterson claims the encounter he had with an iguana was self-defense, claiming the 3-foot green iguana was the aggressor and that he was acting in self-defense when he killed the creature. A laceration on his arm from a bite required 22 staples to close up. Prosecutors counter that a surveillance video of the incident shows that Patterson tormented the animal, and then went into a violent rage when it bit him while defending itself. The iguana had to be put down due to the injuries suffered in the confrontation.

PJ Nilaja Patterson

Patterson claimed immunity from prosecution under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, that allows the use of force when defending oneself. A judge has denied the motion, however, Patterson still has a right to argue justifiable use of force at trial.

Green Iguanas are invasive creatures, and it is permitted to kill them under Florida law, but it must be done humanely. It’s not the first time we’ve covered the inhumane killing of an iguana that led to felony animal cruelty charges. The state has cleared it’s initial burden to allow the case to go forward, but to convict him, they will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did not have a reasonable fear, or that the level of force use was not justified.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen self-defense argued for the killing of an animal. In 2013, a man accused of killing a protected sandbar shark testified at trial in Fort Myers that he killed the animal in self-defense. The court rejected that claim and he was convicted at a bench trial. A man in Bonita Springs claimed self-defense (and defense of property) when he killed a bear that entered his property back in 2009. He argued that Stand Your Ground also granted him immunity, and the state argued that Stand Your Ground only applies to humans. The judge denied his motion, and he ended up agreeing to plead guilty to killing a protected species and do probation in lieu of a trial. I am not aware of any case law that goes as far to say that Stand Your Ground does not apply to animals, and the self-defense statute reads, “[a] person is justified in using or threatening to use deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another”. Fla. Stat. Sec. 776.012(2)- it does not say anything that would limit it to defending yourself (or others) against a person instead of an animal. (Law enforcement officers kill aggressive pets with some frequency, for instance, which is lawful.)

The hurdle for Mr. Patterson is that the iguana was only three feet, and they are docile vegetarians. They run away from people. If the video shows him provoking the animal, he will be unlikely to garner much sympathy from the jury, despite his injury. People don’t like it when animals die: He may explore a plea deal, but he’s facing a felony for animal cruelty.

Also, it gives me another excuse to post Jimbo:

Uncle “He’s comin’ right for us!” Jimbo

Judge Throws man in Jail for Writing Critical Letter After His Case

A judge in Palm Beach County filed contempt charges against Derrick Jenkins, who was sentenced to 30 days in jail, for a harshly worded letter critical of the judge after Jenkins’ case was dismissed. In addition to being critical, Jenkin’s letter was profane, stating ““f—— hypocrit” and he “cant wait til the voters wake up and get rid of these f—— clowns you call judges.” [sic] Judge Howard Coates did not take kindly and initiated contempt proceedings. Another judge was assigned, and found Jenkins’ words a danger to the orderly administration of justice, found Jenkins guilty or contempt of court, and sentenced him to 30 days in jail with 6 months of probation.

If that sounds a problematic, you’re right. The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, and its protections are strongest for speech that is critical of the government. There are limits, for instance it wouldn’t be prudent to shout insults and expletives at a judge in open court. However, there was no disruption of any proceedings in this case. In fact, Mr. Jenkins’ underlying case was closed, the court had dismissed his claim against the Sheriff’s Office, so there was no pending matter. The letter would lose its protection if it contained true threats, but claiming an investigation or to have a judge voted out is not a true threat- that’s the Constitutionally preferred way to deal with those officials we disagree with. Judge Warner said, “That’s what you do when you’re unhappy with the judge. You say, ‘we’re going to vote him out of office'” according to the Palm Beach Post.

Appellate arguments were Tuesday, and the statements and questions raised by the judicial panel hearing the appeal don’t appear to take kindly to the arguments in favor of the conviction. The case does not seem to meet any of the exceptions to the protections provided by the first amendment, in spite of the fact the allegations may have been “scandalous and noxious,” in the words of the offended judge. It will likely be several weeks or even a few months until the appellate court rules.