Trial Against Hialeah Cops Could Result in Twin Juries

May 24, 2023 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements, Violent Crimes

During a criminal trial, the jury is the selected group of people who must listen to the acquired evidence and determine the defendant’s guilt. In some cases, a twin-jury can be used if the case involves multiple defendants. Prior to an upcoming trial in Miami-Dade, the judge announced he plans to implement a twin-jury against two police officers accused of kidnapping and battery.

This page will provide the case details, along with explaining twin juries and their use in the criminal court system.

What is the Case?

On May 18th, 2023, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Robert T. Watson claimed he was “strongly inclined” to move forward with using twin juries in a case against two Hialeah police officers.

According to a new report, law enforcement officers Rafael Quinones Ontano, 27, and Lorenzo Rafael Orfila, 23, were arrested and charged after allegedly beating and abandoning a homeless man in the woods. The incident took place on December 17, 2022, when someone at Los Tres Conejitos contacted police about Jose Ortega Gutierrez, a homeless person well-known by the strip mall shopkeepers.

When officers Ontano and Orfila arrived at the strip mall, they handcuffed Gutierrez and claimed they were taking him to jail for being drunk and disorderly. However, the officer’s GPS system indicated they instead drove Gutierrez to a wooded area 6.6 miles away from the strip mall.

Hours later, an off-duty Hialeah officer spotted Gutierrez wandering the street. He told the officer he had been knocked unconscious and woke up with bruises and cuts on his body.

Less than two weeks after the incident, Gutierrez was approached by private investigator Ali Amin Saleh, 45, who offered him $1,350 to sign an affidavit stating he was never beaten by the two policemen. Notary Juan Prietocofino, 51, is accused of fraudulently notarizing the affidavit.

Both Otano and Orfila have been on house arrest since February 14th, 2023. Otano is facing charges of armed kidnapping and battery. Orfila is facing charges of armed kidnapping, battery, and official misconduct. If convicted, both defendants could potentially face life in prison. Juan Prietocofino and Ali Amin Saleh are both facing charges as well, for their alleged involvement in tampering with witness evidence and attempting to buy Gutierrez’s silence.

Reason for Twin Juries

Judge Watson has given several reasons for the potential use of twin juries in the upcoming case. For one, he claims that back-to-back trials “could be worse” for the case, and that jurors could easily see media coverage of the case. Another reason for using twin juries is to have are more economical to a financially stretched court system. Also, in cases with two defendants, there can be the issue of overlapping witnesses.

Some of the arguments against using a twin jury include:

  • Each person charged with a crime is entitled to their individual trial;
  • More opportunities for jurors in both cases to discuss issues; and
  • Added complications of moving juries in and out of the courtroom to block them from hearing certain parts of testimonies.

In addition to the potential pros and cons of a twin jury, Judge Watson said he believes the trial for all four defendants could be finished within two weeks if the dual jury is implemented.

On the other hand, the defense attorneys in the upcoming trial argued that a dual jury would create too many opportunities for the different jurors to communicate with one another regarding the case.

“It creates a greater risk of poisoning the well,” said Michael Pizzi, Otano’s attorney.

Watson claims that despite the opposition from attorneys, a dual jury is “logistically possible” for the upcoming trial. Judge Watson is set to decide sometime in June, with the State having until May 30 to respond.

When Does a Criminal Trial Use Twin Juries?

In a criminal case with multiple defendants, a prosecutor may traditionally elect:

  1. A joint trial at which evidence of the statement is not admitted;
  2. A joint trial at which evidence of the statement will be admitted after all references to the non-declarant defendant have been deleted, provided the court determines that admission of the evidence with deletions will not prejudice the non-declarant defendant; or
  3. Severance of the non-declarant’s case from the confessing defendant’s case.

The first two options preserve a one-jury trial, whereas the loss or redaction of a defendant’s statement can prevent the full presentation of all relevant evidence against the defendant. In the third option of severance, it can cause complications with the duplication of effort, due to presenting the same case repeatedly to different juries.

To counter these concerns, both State and Federal courts have implemented the use of multiple juries in a joint trial. The use of twin juries or “dual juries” is a rare, but accepted practice in legal proceedings. It involves the selection of two separate juries to hear and decide a single criminal case simultaneously.

That means multiple defendants are being tried simultaneously at one trial by separate juries. Each jury would receive evidence admissible as to that jury’s defendant or defendants. The purpose of twin juries is to mitigate the potential biases and ensure a fair trial when there is a high risk of prejudice or public influence.

According to the Florida Bar, the most common scenario for using multiple juries is when the majority of evidence is admissible against each defendant, but one defendant has made a confession that also implicates the other defendants.

The first case to use twin juries was United States v. Sidman in 1973. The Federal appellate court made the decision affirming a bank robbery conviction, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that a multiple party jury did not violate the defendant’s rights.

Florida’s Experience with Multiple Jury Trials

Florida was one of the first states to use a multiple jury trial after the Ninth Circuit’s Sidman decision. In Feeney v. State, the defendant was convicted of two counts of robbery with a firearm, after his codefendant who was tried by a separate jury simultaneously was acquitted.

The First District Court of Appeals stated the following, after noting the overwhelming admissible evidence against both defendants:

“The law is, and must be, dynamic and not static. Procedural law is no exception. Experience comes about as a result of experiment. A trial judge has a very broad discretion in the procedural conduct of trials. In the absence of demonstrated prejudice we are loathe to disapprove the novel procedure employed sub justice.”

In a joint trial, multiple juries can be a useful judicial tool. If they are implemented properly, they can save both time and money for the courtroom while still ensuring the protection of each defendant’s rights. As each criminal case will vary in specifics, the use of a twin jury will require the combined cooperation of the judges, defense attorneys, and juries for it to be a success.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

Getting charged with a criminal offense is a stressful experience. Especially for a first-time offense, trying to navigate the legal landscape and all its intricate procedures can be time consuming. This is where the experience of a skilled Tallahassee criminal defense attorney can help. By working with an attorney, you can rest knowing you have a knowledgeable lawyer on your side to review case details, build a defense strategy, and fight for your freedom in the courtroom.

Don Pumphrey has represented Floridians accused of criminal offenses for years. His team understands the ins and outs of the law and are prepared to fight for you and your case. Contact Pumphrey Law Firm today at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message and receive a free consultation regarding your case.

Written by Karissa Key

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