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Aggravated vs. Simple Assault in Florida: The Danger of an Inconsistent Verdict

In Florida as in most states, there is a difference between aggravated and simple assault. One of the most common ways to raise an assault charge from a simple assault to an aggravated assault is the use of a firearm (or other deadly weapon) in the course of the commission of the crime. The defendant’s possession of a firearm is an essential element of the crime, which the government has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt. In practice, however, the jury at criminal trial may not really understand the requirements of the law, and may instead seek to administer a sort of “rough justice” (also known as a “compromise verdict”), cobbling together a verdict that they feel is fair under the circumstances, even though it is not consistent with the technical requirements of the law. The jury might, for example, both find that there was not enough evidence showing that a person charged with a crime actually possessed a firearm, but still find him or her guilty of aggravated assault if its members believe the crime to have been morally reprobate.

But that is not how our criminal justice system is supposed to work. Each and every one of us has the right to be convicted only when the state actually meets its burden of proof on each technical element of the crime charged. In other words, no one should be found guilty of aggravated assaulted when the state can only prove a simple assault. An experienced criminal defense lawyer knows the difference, and can make sure that you aren’t victim of an overactive jury.

A Recent Case from the Florida Courts

In the 2014 case of Gerald v. State, the defendant was charged with aggravated assault because he allegedly threatened the victim with a firearm. After being instructed by the judge on the elements of the crime, the jury went into deliberations. On their verdict form, the jurors specifically found that the defendant did not possess a firearm during the commission of the assault. However, the jury still found him guilty of aggravated assault. The defendant’s attorney moved for a new trial, but his motion was denied. He then appealed the conviction to the Florida Court of Appeals, arguing that it was logically impossible for the jury to have both found that he did not possess a firearm and that he committed aggravated assault. The Florida Court of Appeals agreed, finding that the verdict was “truly inconsistent” with the facts as the jury found them. As the Court stated: “it is impossible to reconcile how the jury could find that [the defendant] committed aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, but also specifically find beyond a reasonable doubt that [he] did not possess the firearm.” The Court therefore ordered that his case be sent back to the trial court with instructions to enter a verdict of simple assault.

The difference between these two charges can make all the difference in the world, especially when it comes to sentencing (not to mention the other consequences of being convicted, like explaining to future employers). Consult with an attorney like Kevin J. Kulik based in Fort Lauderdale who knows the ins and outs of assault cases.

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