Rodrigo Bonilla knifed a man for asking if he could spare some change. The bloodied victim staggered into a Homestead discount store and begged a clerk to call police, but he soon collapsed and died. Bonilla was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. A few years later, his sentence was reduced to just 15 years. Why did he get the break? The jury instructions read during his trial contained one faulty phrase.
Bonilla's case is no aberration. The bad wording has forced Florida judges to throw out more than 100 murder and attempted murder convictions, a Tampa Bay Times examination of state records found.
Dozens of killers and would-be killers have received new trials or the chance to make plea agreements. More than a quarter have received shorter prison sentences, sometimes dramatically shorter:
An Orlando man, serving life in prison for killing a longtime friend, had his sentence reduced to 18 years. A man who shot and permanently disabled a retiree in Sanford had his 30-year sentence reduced to 12 years plus probation. And in Tampa, a man who stabbed someone repeatedly at a halfway house had his life sentence reduced to 20 years.
The faulty phrase, which remained in jury instructions for 16 years, forced many victims and their family members back into court to relive the worst tragedies of their lives.
Attorney Richard Summa, who filed the original appeal over the problematic wording, said, "It's absolutely frightening that something like that can go on and on and on."
To understand why more than a hundred defendants got the right to new trials, it helps to understand the crime of manslaughter, specifically the kind called "manslaughter by act."
Here's an example: Two men meet in a bar and start arguing over something trivial. The first guy punches the second guy, who falls down, hits his head and dies.
The first guy didn't intend to kill anyone, but he did intentionally throw a punch and someone died as a result. Under Florida law, that's most likely "manslaughter by act," the act being the punch.
But from 1994 to 2010, Florida's standard instructions stated that jurors could only convict someone of "manslaughter by act" if the suspect "intentionally caused the death of" the victim.
That phrase — "intentionally caused the death" — created the problem. Contrary to Florida law, it said jurors could only find defendants guilty of manslaughter if they actually intended to kill their victims.
In Florida, second-degree murder doesn't even require an explicit intent to kill. Prosecutors have to show that a defendant demonstrated a depraved indifference toward human life and committed an imminently dangerous act. But they don't have to prove the defendant intended to kill anyone.
So the faulty jury instructions effectively made it harder to convict someone of manslaughter than of the much more serious crime of second-degree murder, which can carry a life sentence.
Occasionally, attorneys mused over this apparent contradiction.
But it wasn't until 2009 that Summa, a Tallahassee public defender, attacked it in hope of winning his client a new trial.
• • •
Summa had never even met Steven Montgomery, a Jacksonville man sentenced to 45 years in prison for using a metal bar, a broomstick and a DVD player to beat his girlfriend to death.
He was poring over trial transcripts, looking for mistakes that might help him appeal Montgomery's second-degree murder conviction. Then he got to the jury instructions.
After closing arguments in a trial, judges read prewritten instructions to jurors to help them understand the law. The instructions are supposed to explain the law accurately. But Summa realized that, in Montgomery's case, they didn't. There was nothing in Florida's manslaughter law that required proof the defendant "intentionally caused the death" of the victim.
Why did that matter?
In many trials, judges read the instructions for both murder and manslaughter, and juries decide whether either is appropriate given the evidence. The faulty instruction could have made it easier for juries to convict defendants of second-degree murder, instead of the lesser crime of manslaughter.
The Florida Supreme Court eventually said this was such a serious problem that it amounted to "fundamental, reversible error in Montgomery's case and requires that Montgomery receive a new trial."
The old jury instructions were thrown out, and prisoners across the state began filing their own appeals. At first, the ruling applied to defendants convicted of second-degree murder. A later ruling expanded it to attempted second-degree murder.
Since 2010, the faulty jury instructions have led to reversals in at least 103 cases, according to the Times examination. In most cases, the defendants were convicted again, and, in at least 38, the sentences remained the same. Twenty defendants still await their second trials, and the status of 14 other cases is unclear.
But the Times found 31 defendants who received lighter sentences the second time around, usually after plea agreements with prosecutors.
Take Edwin Ivaldi. In 2006, on a sidewalk near a Miami park, Ivaldi killed a 16-year-old boy over his Nikes and a gold neck chain. He received life in prison, but his case was overturned because of the faulty instructions. After a plea agreement, he got just 15 years.
Or take David Delvalle, who repeatedly stabbed a fellow Tampa halfway house resident in 2006. Convicted of second-degree murder, he was originally sentenced to life in prison. In a plea arrangement, he got 20 years.
Or Charles Mendenhall, who in 2004 shot a man in Lake County who had asked him to get his feet off his girlfriend's bed. After a plea deal, his 35-year sentence for attempted second-degree murder was reduced to 15 years.
The prosecutors agreed to the drastic reduction in Mendenhall's sentence because the chances of convicting him again at trial had dropped considerably.
"We had one witness that passed away and another that couldn't be located," said Walter Forgie, a Lake County prosecutor.
Many prosecutors cited similar reasons for agreeing to reduced sentences.
"If it was a tough case to begin with, it usually doesn't get any better with time," said Mark Cox, spokesman for the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office.
And what about Steven Montgomery, whose case launched all the appeals?
He's one of the very few who fared worse. After a second trial, he was convicted again of second-degree murder. This time, instead of 45 years, the judge gave him a life sentence.
So, by winning his appeal, Montgomery lost his chance of ever getting out of prison.
• • •
An obvious question arises: How did the faulty jury instruction stay on the books for 16 years?
It was not simply a mistake, but more of a difference in opinion.
In 1994, a committee of attorneys appointed by the Florida Supreme Court inserted the language requiring proof that the defendant "intentionally caused the death." The move came after attorneys argued that, historically, manslaughter included intentional killings.
But a decade later, the same committee — made up of different lawyers — again looked at the issue. In a 2007 report, it said, "the entire committee struggled to understand why" the previous group of attorneys changed the instruction in 1994. The report also quoted a judge who said proof of intent to kill "was not required by the legislature when the manslaughter statute was enacted."
So the committee recommended changing the manslaughter instruction to something similar to how it read before 1994, which did not require an intent to kill. But the Supreme Court rejected the suggestion and left in the "intentionally caused the death" language.
Yet, less than two years later, the Supreme Court called that very phrase a "fundamental error," and threw out Montgomery's conviction, setting all the appeals in motion.
The problem, said University of Florida Law professor Jennifer Zedalis, was the jury instruction strayed from accurately explaining Florida law.
"The bottom line is, it has to reflect the law," she said.
• • •
The fallout has left many victims and their family members "mad as hell," in the words of Carol Gibbs.
In 2008, Gibbs' mentally disabled brother, Charles "Skipper" Gibbs, was stabbed 11 times in a St. Petersburg park for no apparent reason. The attacker slashed Gibbs in the head and abdomen and nearly cut off a finger.
Now, if something violent comes on television, "He will get very emotional and say, 'They don't really know what it's like to be stabbed,'" his sister said recently from their new home in Alabama.
Defendant Sascha Weber, a German citizen, received 15 years in prison for attempted second-degree murder, but his appeal and plea agreement dropped it to less than nine. Carol Gibbs disliked the shorter sentence, but she decided it was better than forcing her brother back to Pinellas County to relive the stabbing at another trial. She is relieved that Weber will be deported back to Germany after serving his sentence.
Nonetheless, she said, "As far as I'm concerned, this man should be in prison for the rest of his life."
Cora Brown of Sanford feels the same way about the criminal who changed her life forever.
She and her husband were driving to church in 2006 when Blake A. Ward fired a gun, apparently at a rival group of young men. But the bullet went into her husband's head, paralyzing him.
After the first trial, Ward was sentenced to 30 years in prison for attempted second-degree murder, and Brown didn't think that was enough.
"Because I got life," she said. "… Life with him being disabled, life with me suffering from stress every day. Can't stand noises, can't stand different things, just two lives ruined."
But four years later, she got a call from prosecutors who told her about Ward's successful appeal. "They were very sympathetic, and they said they knew I wouldn't like it, but it was just one of those things."
After a plea agreement, Ward's sentence dropped from 30 years to 12 years, plus three years' probation.
"It's obvious that it's not right," she said.
The new trials retraumatized some families, even when the sentence didn't change.
When Amanda Fanter was shot and killed in 2007 near Pinellas Park, her mother, Florence Lago, felt an anguish that "will never, ever, ever leave. It's just like somebody maybe sticking a knife in you and just twisting and twisting and twisting."
In 2013, Lago learned from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office that the killer had won a new trial because of "a technical glitch," as she understood it.
"I'm thinking, what in the world, a technical glitch?" said Lago, who is raising her daughter's three children. "And I have to go through this again, and this will give him a chance to appeal and get less time?"
In April, she attended Aaron T. Daniels' second trial. A jury again found him guilty of second-degree murder. At his sentencing hearing, Daniels apologized for the killing but added that it was an accident. For the second time, he was sentenced to life in prison.
Lago was relieved but still angry she had to endure another trial all these years later.
"I would like to pull on somebody's ears who made that mistake," she said.
• • •
Richard Summa, the lawyer who filed the appeal on behalf of Montgomery, acknowledged the difficulties the Florida Supreme Court's ruling has caused some victims' families.
But he strongly believes the court made the right decision.
"In my opinion, it's a very good thing because the trials are more fair. It's that simple. The effect of the erroneous jury instructions was to handcuff the jury, not allowing them to do what they're supposed to do."
But it should not have happened in the first place, Summa said. Virtually every murder case that came up over those 16 years was an opportunity to remedy the faulty wording, he said.
"(It's) a total failure of the criminal justice system," he said, "including the defense bar, including the prosecutors, including the judges."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.