Can You Limit Evidence in a Trial? The Aiden Fucci Case
July 27, 2022 Don Pumphrey, Jr. Criminal Defense, Violent Crimes Social Share
The upcoming murder trial for 15-year-old Aiden Fucci has already received several motions filed for the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Fucci was arrested and accused of killing his 13-year-old classmate Tristyn Bailey in May 2021.
This case brings up the question, can you limit evidence in a trial? Fucci’s defense team is attempting to limit the media coverage, autopsy images, and location of the trial to ensure they can find an impartial jury. We will cover the details of the case, along with the motions the defense team has filed.
What was the Case?
On May 8th, 2021, Tristyn Bailey’s family came home after a night out together in northwest St. Johns County. Tristyn, 13, was assumed to be asleep in her room but was last seen by her sibling around midnight. The following day—Mother’s Day—the family woke up to find Tristyn gone.
The family reported their daughter missing around 10 am, and a neighborhood search began amongst family and friends. Less than 24 hours after being reported missing, Tristyn’s body was found in a wooded area close to her home. She had been stabbed 114 times.
During a news conference regarding the killing, state attorney R.J. Larizza said Tristyn was stabbed, “at least 49 of those stab wounds were to the hands, arms, and the head. They were defensive in nature.”
When police began the investigation for Tristyn’s murder, they found surveillance videos of the 13-year-old with fellow Patriot Oaks Academy student, Aiden Fucci. The two lived less than a mile from each other, and were shown on camera at their recreation center around 1:15 am the morning that Tristyn was reported missing.
Fucci, 15, was arrested and charged as an adult with first-degree murder of Tristyn, but he has pleaded not guilty.
St. Johns County Sheriff Rob Hardwick commented on the case in an interview on May 13th, 2021: “This is one of those cases—I hate to use the words, but—it’s our worst nightmare. These kids both went to school together…It’s going to be a long process to heal for our community.”
If convicted, Fucci could receive a sentence of 40 years or up to life in prison. Due to his young age, Fucci is not eligible to receive the death penalty for the first-degree murder. His sentence would also be up for review after 25 years.
Motion for a Fair Trial
Over a year after Tristyn’s death, there have been several motions from Fucci’s defense to defend the teen’s right to a fair trial. Among the motions that have been filed, the public defender’s office has requested to leave out the images from Tristyn’s autopsy, and restrict media access to the case’s trial. The defense is asking for consideration of Fucci’s constitutional rights, along with the right to freedom of the press.
The first motion Rosemarie Peoples, Fucci’s attorney, has filed has requested that Judge Lee Smith will “preserve and protect the defendant’s (right) to a fair trial and due process under the law.”
The main points in the motion are to restrict media access along with public access to the pretrial hearings. It also requests that the pretrial evidentiary hearings are closed as well. There have already been five public pretrial hearings in Smith’s courtroom.
In addition, the motion requests that there are no video cameras to stream the jury selection in the courtroom. The defense has argued that jurors wouldn’t feel comfortable being completely open about bias or prejudices if they were being filmed. The defense has also requested that the selected jurors be addressed by number, not by name.
The Florida Bar’s Reporter’s Handbook explains the defendant’s right to a fair trial and freedom of press:
“There is a common law right to attend pretrial hearings. The person asking to close the courtroom must satisfy a three-part test with evidence, not just speculation or argument of his or her lawyer, in order to overcome the presumption of access.
A court may foreclose access to pretrial hearings only when the proponent of closure proves by the greater weight of the evidence that:
- Closure is necessary to prevent a serious and imminent threat to the administration of justice;
- There are no less restrictive alternatives other than a change of venue; and
- Closure will be effective in protecting the rights of the accused.”
According to the Florida Bar, the media has a right to attend a trial under the First Amendment, but “the court still may restrict access if it finds an overriding interest requires it and there are no alternatives to restricting access.”
There have already been several memorandums of opposition to the motion to prohibit media and public access.
One of the likely concerns with media coverage of these hearings is that there is a chance that the potential jury pool will be tainted. For cases that are highly sensitive like this one, it can be hard for the court to search for a jury. For example, in the Parkland case, the judge had to release an entire panel of jurors to find a 12 juror panel for the death penalty trial.
In a separate motion filed by Peoples, she has requested an evidentiary hearing to consider the prohibiting of any autopsy photos during the trial. Written in the motion Peoples explains, “the port-mortem photographs of the decedent, taken either in the hospital or at the office of the medical examiner, are unduly prejudicial and would be used by the state for the primary purpose of inflaming the passions of the jurors.”
Although a judge will sometimes grant the request to prohibit autopsy photos, it is more likely that there are only a specific number of photos shown, and only the most relevant ones.
The argument that the photos would be more prejudicial than probative comes from the Florida Evidence Code 90.403. Rule 403 states that “evidence is inadmissible if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of issues, misleading the jury, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.”
Probative value is a legal term that means that the evidence has a probability to prove a relevant fact at issue. When multiple photos are used to prove the same fact, then each subsequent photo after the first has less probative value and the risk that there is unfair prejudice against the defendant increases.
Location of the Trial
The request for a change of venue has also been filed in a motion by Fucci’s defense. Peoples argued that, “the media coverage of this case continues such that this defendant cannot receive a fair trial in any county of the Seventh Circuit nor the adjacent judicial circuits in Florida.”
Typically it is difficult to move a case out of a court’s jurisdiction, and only after there has been an attempt in good-faith to assemble a jury in the county would a judge consider moving it. The most important part about picking a jury, according to attorney Jason B. Blank, is to choose a group of jurors who have yet to have made up their mind about the case. “A fair and impartial jury doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t know anything about the case,” Blank explained. “It’s very difficult to find a true fair and impartial jury.”
Fucci is set to go into the courtroom on August 31st, 2022. His trial is scheduled to begin in November.
Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida
If you or a loved one have been accused of a crime, it is imperative that you seek out the help of a skilled defense attorney. Getting arrested can be extremely stressful, and a criminal conviction can lead to harsh consequences such as expensive fines and jail time. The best way to ensure you have a strong defense for your case is to work with an experienced defense attorney in your area. Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have experience representing clients all across Florida, and will work tirelessly to earn your freedom. For a free consultation call (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message today.
Written by Karissa Key