When is an Error in Jury Instructions Grounds for Appeal?

To challenge jury instructions on appeal, the defendant must preserve the alleged error by objecting at the trial court level. If the defendant did not properly object to the trial court, the defendant may only raise the instructions on appeal if “fundamental error” occurred. An erroneous jury instruction is fundamentally erroneous only if it relates to a disputed issue at trial and a guilty verdict could not have been reached without the erroneous instruction. A recent Second District Court of Appeal case provides an example of how courts apply this rule in reviewing an appeal. Zeigler v. State, a second district case decided last month, addressed Merle Frances Zeigler’s appeal of her conviction for second-degree murder.

The underlying facts involved the stormy relationship between Zeigler and her boyfriend Frank Reposh. The couple lived with Zeigler’s adult son, Joshua, Joshua’s girlfriend Debbie Meneely and their baby daughter in a two-bedroom duplex. Reposh and Joshua became involved in a verbal altercation one evening and Joshua armed himself with a knife. When Reposh tried to leave, Joshua stabbed him in the abdomen. Meneely went to the store for peroxide and gauze and when she returned, heard a gunshot. She found Reposh lying face down, hog-tied, screaming, and bleeding profusely. Meneely saw Joshua holding the handgun. Joshua told her to back to her bed room, she did, then heard a second gunshot. Zeigler and Joshua rolled Reposh up in plastic and put him in the bathtub. Reposh lay there dead for three days. After three days, Joshua, Zeigler, and Meneely buried Reposh’s dead body in a shallow grave near a deserted road.

On appeal, Zeigler argued the trial court committed fundamental error when it gave the standard jury instruction on the lesser-included offense of manslaughter by including the “intent to kill” element in its manslaughter jury instruction. Zeigler claimed this prevented the jury from convicting her of the lesser-included offense even if it found she did not intend for Reposh to be killed. Zeigler did not object to the jury instructions at trial and thus, did not preserve the alleged error for appeal. Accordingly, she bore the heavy burden of proving the standard jury instruction was so unclear as to be fundamentally erroneous.

The Second District Court of Appeal disagreed with Zeigler’s argument. The intent required for a manslaughter conviction is not an intent to kill but only an intent to do the act that resulted in the victim’s death. The instruction at issue stated the State was not required to prove the defendant had a pre-mediated intent to cause death. Because the trial court’s jury instructions, as a whole, properly stated the proper law and explained the required intent, it was not clearly erroneous. Further, standard jury instructions for criminal trials are presumed to be correct. The Second District Court of Appeal affirmed Zeigler’s conviction and sentence.

If you believe there was an error related to the instructions provided to the jury at your trial or have any other questions related to an appeal of your criminal conviction, do not hesitate to contact Rooth Law Group for a free consultation today.

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