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Rentas v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

January 10, 2018

RUBEN ISRAEL RENTAS, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF FLORIDA, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, Palm Beach County; Dina A. Keever, Judge; L.T. Case No. 502012CF006211A.

          Carey Haughwout, Public Defender, and Karen Ehrlich, Assistant Public Defender, West Palm Beach, for appellant.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Luke R. Napodano, Assistant Attorney General, West Palm Beach, for appellee.

          KLINGENSMITH, J.

         Appellant Ruben Israel Rentas appeals his criminal convictions for two counts of sexual activity with a child, two counts of lewd or lascivious molestation of a child over the age of twelve but under the age of sixteen, one count of lewd or lascivious molestation of a child under the age of twelve, one count of sexual performance by a child, and one count of showing obscene material to a child. He claims the trial court erred in denying cause challenges to two prospective jurors based on statements raising doubts as to their impartiality. He also argues that the trial court erred by permitting the jury to rehear a portion of the minor victim's testimony without also rehearing the corresponding cross-examination. We agree on both issues, and grant appellant's request for a new trial.

         Part of appellant's defense theory was that he gave a false confession. During voir dire, defense counsel asked the prospective jurors, "Do you believe people confess to crimes they did not commit?" The first three jurors to answer each stated they believed that under certain conditions, false confessions could occur. The fourth prospective juror to speak on the issue, Juror 1-5, stated that he did not believe a person would falsely confess to committing such a serious offense and that the validity of an involuntary confession was contingent on the severity of the alleged crime. He explained, "If the person is accused of a serious crime, I seriously doubt that they would say they did it if they didn't think so." Juror 1-5 later reiterated his belief that an innocent person would not confess to a crime he did not commit:

But I would say you know-- and I'll clarify that-- they certainly would have been involved in it. And I think your question was would they agree to admitting to a crime that they did not commit and my answer to that would be no.

(Emphases added).

         Juror 1-5 unequivocally said he would be fair and impartial, but was not further questioned by the State or the trial court concerning his views on false confessions. Defense counsel challenged this juror for cause because he candidly expressed difficulty accepting false confessions for serious crimes and that a person who confessed was certainly involved in some way. The State responded that Juror 1-5's opinions were entirely reasonable and that his statements actually meant false confessions were extremely unlikely, not that they did not occur in serious cases. The trial court agreed with the State and denied the challenge for cause to Juror 1-5.

         During the voir dire discussion, a second juror, Juror 3-7, was asked for his thoughts about false confessions. Juror 3-7 also found it hard to believe that a person would falsely admit to committing the charged crimes:

Well, it-- it's kind of hard for me to believe that someone would admit guilt to a crime of this nature if they were in fact innocent. I mean very unreasonable. I mean anything's possible of course. But something of this nature would just be very unreasonable for someone to admit guilt to.

(Emphases added).

         Defense counsel tried to decipher whether Juror 3-7 would be fair and impartial, and asked him if he would have difficulty accepting an involuntary confession theory. Juror 3-7 answered that he "would look at everything evenly and as fair as possible to make a fair decision." But when defense counsel inquired further as to whether Juror 3-7's position was that involuntary confessions were "possible" or "completely unreasonable, " Juror 3-7 responded, "It's possible. ...


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