Appeals court overturns FAMU hazing convictions
August 9, 2008
An appeals court has reversed the hazing conviction of two Florida A&M fraternity members and ordered a new trial.
Michael J. Morton and Jason D. Harris, members of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, were convicted of felony hazing of student Marcus Jones in December 2006. They were sentenced to two years in prison.
On July 22, attorneys for Harris and Morton asked the 1st District Court of Appeal to throw out the convictions, saying there is no definition of what "serious bodily injury" means under the hazing law. Attorneys also questioned instructions Circuit Judge Kathleen Dekker gave to the jury.
The appeals court decision, entered Friday, disagreed that the hazing law was vague and upheld the law as constitutional to the delight of the law's sponsor and author Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach.
He said he "fought hard alongside parents and educators to make Florida's anti-hazing law the toughest in the nation."
Friday's ruling, however, went on to say that the court erred in its instructions to the jury, thereby entitling the men to a new trial. According to the 1st District Court of Appeal, jurors were instructed that they could only acquit the men if the hazing victim's injuries were "slight."
The jurors were given two degrees of injuries to consider — "serious" and "slight." The importance in that distinction is that the felony hazing law requires the presence of "serious bodily injury" for conviction.
The jurors were not instructed that there could be levels of injury between "serious" and "slight," such as "moderate," according to today's ruling.
"We cannot conclude the error in the jury instruction was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt," the court wrote. "The prosecutor, in keeping with the jury instruction, told jurors during closing argument, 'Serious is distinguished from slight. The injury sustained by Marcus Jones was by no means slight.' "
Michael Ufferman, Morton's appellate counsel said, "We are all very pleased with the court's decision. This case has been ongoing since early 2006 and now we hope this unfortunate situation can be fairly resolved when the case is remanded back to the trial court."
Harris' attorney, Beverly Pohl of Ft. Lauderdale, said she was also pleased with the decision, which showed how "jury instructions are a very critical part of a criminal trial."
Jones' attorneys, Roosevelt Randolph and Dawn Whitehurst, offered this comment by news release: "While it is disappointing that the convictions were overturned, this opinion has no effect on the civil case that we have filed here in Leon County."
The attorney representing Morton in the civil lawsuit disagrees.
"The reversal of Morton and Harris' convictions is huge with respect to the civil case in that the plaintiff, Marcus Jones, can no longer use as leverage or trial evidence the fact that a criminal jury previously found them guilty of felony hazing," Tallahassee attorney Charles Hobbs said.
Hobbs also represented Morton in the 2006 criminal trial. The civil lawsuit is still in the discovery phase. No trial date has been set.