An appeals court ruling in a Palm Beach County case could soon compel Florida’s Supreme Court to clarify jury instructions on what facts prosecutors must prove to get convictions for drivers charged with leaving the scene of a crash involving injuries.
The 4th District Court of Appeal this week overturned Coconut Creek resident Zachariah Dorsett’s conviction for leaving the scene of a crash involving injury, ordering a new trial in the 2007 Boca Raton crash in which skateboarder Nicholas Savinon, then 15, was dragged under Dorsett’s pickup truck for 40 feet.
At issue in the ruling was whether jurors in Dorsett’s trial should have heard clearer instructions on whether prosecutors had to prove that Dorsett actually knew a crash had occurred in order to convict him. Dorsett’s defense was that he had no idea he had crashed into anything until investigators stopped him later.
The appellate court cited a 2005 case referred to the state’s high court where it determined jurors should be instructed to determine whether evidence proved defendants “knew or should have known” that someone was injured in a crash when they left the scene. But the supreme court, in that ruling, never addressed what the standard was to determine whether defendants knew they had been involved in a crash, the appellate court said.
In Dorsett’s case, the appellate judges asked, how could jurors be asked to determine whether he knew someone was injured without first determining whether he knew there was a crash?
“We recognize there was testimony from which a jury may have determined that the defendant actually knew of the accident, but the jury was not instructed that actual knowledge of the accident had to be proved,” Judge C.J. May wrote in the eight-page opinion.
Dorsett’s Fort Lauderdale attorney, Jeanette Bellon, argued in her appeal that because the law tied to Dorsett’s charge shows that a defendant must have actual knowledge that a crash occurred, the jury instructions should say the same.
West Palm Beach defense attorney Richard Tendler agrees. Tendler, who wasn’t involved in Dorsett’s case but has defended others charged in similar cases, said he believes that even the “known or should have known” clause is too broad, saying the idea of what someone should have known is subjective. He says prosecutors should have to prove someone knew there was both a crash and an injury to someone to get a conviction in cases like Dorsett’s.
If the state Supreme Court decides the jury instructions should indicate actual knowledge, Tendler said, it would be a victory for defendants statewide.
“Essentially, it would mean that it is no longer sufficient to come in and infer that the defendant knew it happened,” Tendler said. “Prosecutors will have to prove actual knowledge.”
Whether that clarification would affect Dorsett’s case is unclear. But Nicholas Savinon’s mother, Lydia, is convinced that Dorsett knew he had hit her son. The teenager, witnesses said, lost control of his skateboard and slid into the roadway directly into the side of Dorsett’s truck.
Dorsett said he had his windows up and his music was blasting, so he heard and felt nothing. But several nearby motorists and other witnesses in the case testified that they both clearly heard and saw the crash.
Lydia Savinon was surprised Thursday to hear Dorsett’s conviction had been overturned. She said her son, now 21, is permanently affected — particularly by the traumatic brain injuries he suffered in the crash. He can walk and talk and perform basic tasks on his own, but he still has seizures that — though controlled by medication — are severe enough that he cannot stay home alone without a caregiver.
Still, Lydia Savinon said, Nicholas thrives as a member of Lynn University’s Project ACCESS, a program that provides a college experience and teaches life skills to young adults with disabilities.
Though she began to wonder aloud how prosecutors would put a case together again, line up all the witnesses and pick another jury in Dorsett’s case, Lydia Savinon said her attention remains where it has been since the crash — on the son whose sense of humor and quick wit she said still shines through his slower speech.
“He wasn’t my focus from Day One,” Lydia Savinon said of Dorsett. “I believe in karma, and what’s happening with him, that’s his thing.”