Nancy A. Daniels, Public Defender, and Danielle Jorden, Assistant Public Defender, Tallahassee, for Appellant.
Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, and Samuel A. Perrone, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, for Appellee.
Joseph Corrao appeals his convictions for leaving the scene of a crash involving personal injury and for two counts of driving under the influence involving damage to person or property. He contends that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied the motion for mistrial he made on grounds the prosecutor asked him, in the jury's presence, whether he had offered to plead guilty in exchange for reduced charges. We agree and reverse.
Certain basic facts were not in dispute at trial: On the night of January 4, 2009, a white van, registered to Mr. Corrao, swerved into oncoming traffic and hit a small white car head on. As a result, the driver of the white car ended up with broken teeth and a skull fracture, and his passenger suffered collapsed lungs, a fractured sternum, and seven broken ribs. Pictures of the crash scene showed the passenger door of the van open. Mr. Corrao was found lying on the ground in the woods about 100 feet away, wearing blue shorts and a shirt, unresponsive and smelling of alcohol. Tests of samples taken from Mr. Corrao at the scene revealed blood alcohol levels of .366 and .364 grams per 100 milliliters.
Mr. Corrao's defense at trial was that he was not driving the van at the time of the accident. There was ample evidence the other way, and there is no contention on appeal that the evidence is insufficient to support the convictions. But the evidence at trial was in conflict as to the number of the white van's occupants— whether one or two— and as to who was driving the van.
Mr. Corrao testified that, on the day of the accident, after drinking beer and watching football at his mother's house, he went to Michael Case's house at about four-thirty to work on a trampoline; that
Billy Mitchell drove him back to his mother's house after an hour and a half, where they drank more beer and rum; that, about an hour later, his friend Will Biellings drove him to Troy Baxter's house, with Billy Mitchell following behind in his own truck; and that they left Troy Baxter's house at about eight-fifteen or eight-thirty to go to a convenience store.
On the trip to the convenience store, Mr. Corrao testified, Mr. Biellings was driving his van and he sat in the passenger's seat, while Billy Mitchell again followed in his own truck. He testified he did not remember leaving the convenience store, and that the next thing he remembered was Mr. Biellings screaming at him, unlocking the passenger door, throwing him onto the ground, and running off. Later Donald Neilson helped him move away from the road and into the trees for safety reasons, he testified.
Corroborating this version of events in important particulars, Billy Mitchell testified that in the early afternoon on January 4, he was at Mr. Case's house  with Mr. Corrao and a person named Will, until they left (in two vehicles) for Mr. Baxter's house. When they later left Mr. Baxter's house, Will drove Mr. Corrao's van with Mr. Corrao in the passenger seat to Mr. Corrao's mother's house, and then to a convenience store. There, he testified, Mr. Corrao did not go into the convenience store, and, when he came out, he saw Mr. Corrao slumped over in the passenger seat of the van.
Troy Baxter testified that Mr. Corrao came to his house the day of the accident with Billy Mitchell and a person he did not know. They stayed for about thirty minutes, and it was dark when they left. He testified that he saw Mr. Corrao in the passenger seat of the van as they left.
Donald Neilson testified that he was not a friend of Mr. Corrao but knew him and his business. He testified that when he came upon the accident, he saw the passenger door open and saw Mr. Corrao get out of the van, and then he saw another person get out of the van. He testified that he told Mr. Corrao, who was wearing a light-colored button-up shirt and brown or black pants, to sit down in the grass out of the road.
In the state's rebuttal case, Trooper Birchard testified that Mr. Corrao telephoned after the accident and that, when he returned the calls, Mr. Corrao said " that he wasn't driving, that— he had an excuse for everything. Just it wasn't him, ...