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Lai v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

August 1, 2018

Francis Majak Lai, Appellant,
v.
State of Florida, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Duval County. Marianne L. Aho, Judge.

          Candice K. Brower, Regional Conflict Counsel, Gainesville, and Melissa J. Ford, Assistant Regional Conflict Counsel, Tallahassee, for Appellant.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, and Kaitlin Weiss, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, for Appellee.

          RAY, J.

         Francis Majak Lai and his co-defendant, Mackenley Fiacre, were charged with killing Barnat Bella while burglarizing his home. Both men were convicted of first-degree murder and armed burglary and sentenced to life in prison on each count. This is Lai's appeal. Because we find no reversible error in the issues presented, we affirm his convictions and sentences. We write to address a comment made during the State's closing argument and also note that remand is necessary to correct a scrivener's error on the written judgment.

         I.

         Jacksonville law enforcement officers were dispatched to Bella's home late one evening after his security alarm activated. They arrived to find his bedroom window "blown out" and the blinds and curtains hanging outside the window. The bathroom window in the rear of the home was broken as well.

         Once inside, they discovered Bella lying in the hallway with blood around his head and shell casings near his body. He had no pulse. The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy would later testify that Bella's death was a homicide caused by a bullet wound to the back of his neck that cut his spinal cord. The characteristics of the wound indicated that the end of the gun's muzzle was almost touching Bella's skin when the shot was fired.

         Based on the locations of the glass around the two broken windows, the crime scene detectives determined the bathroom window was the entry point for the assailants and the bedroom window was the exit point. Lai's blood was found in the victim's hallway and bedroom, and Fiacre's blood was found on a piece of glass outside, under the broken bedroom window.[1]

         Kiristina Jok, who was Lai's girlfriend at the time of the crimes, testified that Lai and Fiacre were friends. On the evening in question, Fiacre called her phone and she handed it to Lai. He then left. When Jok saw Lai a few hours later, he looked upset and had a cut on his arm. Jok tried to find out what had happened, but he would not tell her anything that evening. The next morning, Lai explained that he and "some other guy" broke into a house, the other guy fought with Bella and shot him, and Lai cut his arm on a window. Jok did not call the police. The couple broke up a week later, although they remained friends.

         Jennifer Masters testified for the defense. Lai was the father of Masters's grandchild, and Lai lived with her for two months prior to his arrest. Lai told Masters that he could not pay rent "because he was attacked and robbed." On cross-examination, she testified that she was originally going to be a State's witness, but the day before her testimony, she told the prosecutor for the first time that she would testify that Lai told her he had been attacked and robbed. Though Masters admitted she never told the police or prosecutor about Lai's claim in the three years the case was pending, she explained she had just remembered that detail and pointed out that she had never been asked whether Lai told her he was attacked. She admitted testifying in a prior deposition that when she saw Lai after the murder, he had a cut on his arm and he claimed he did not remember how he got it.

         II.

         In his first issue, Lai contends the trial court erred when it refused to give a curative instruction and denied his motion for a mistrial after he successfully objected to an improper comment made during closing argument. During the course of trial, counsel for both defendants implicitly or explicitly suggested that the police were untruthful, the prosecutor pressured witnesses to testify in the State's favor, and the police and prosecutor may have concealed evidence. During the State's rebuttal closing, the prosecutor ...


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