Craig Sandhaus overreacted by fatally stabbing a downtown bar bouncer who was beating up his younger brother in 2011, but he didn't commit murder, a state appeals court ruled when it reduced his conviction.
The Fifth District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach vacated Sandhaus' 45-year prison term and ordered for him to be resentenced on a manslaughter charge.
Sandhaus, 31, was charged with second-degree murder for his involvement in a fight in an alley near The Lodge on Orange Avenue. Milton Torres Jr., 25, a bouncer at the bar, was fatally stabbed three times during the altercation. A jury convicted Sandhaus in 2013.
"It's a big deal that he'll get at least 15 years of his life back, perhaps more," Eric Barker, one of his original defense attorneys, said Monday.
"It seemed from the beginning that it was a manslaughter case, but despite our best efforts, the jury agreed with the state. Our defense that we presented at trial is that he didn't commit the offense at all, and if he did, he did it in defense of himself or others."
A grainy, black-and-white surveillance video captures the 25-second altercation as it escalates but doesn't clearly show the knife or stabbing.
A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's Office, which handled the appeal, said lawyers are reviewing Friday's ruling. The Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office, which prosecuted the case, wouldn't comment.
The appeals-court decision means Sandhaus now faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison, the term for first-degree felonies such as manslaughter with a weapon.
The court determined Sandhaus couldn't be convicted of second-degree murder because he didn't kill Torres out of hatred or spite — requirements of the offense.
In an eight-page opinion, appellate judges cited a number of fatal bar brawl cases to show the difference between someone who kills out of malicious intention and someone who kills because of their reaction to a physical fight.
The court highlighted these points in Sandhaus' situation:
"All the testimony was consistent: neither of the brothers knew any of the bouncers before that night, there was no indication of ill will or hatred displayed by or against the brothers until the arguing and shoving began, nobody threatened physical harm to anybody before the fight actually broke out, and nobody mentioned or displayed a weapon prior to the altercation."
Attempts to reach relatives of Torres on Monday were unsuccessful.
Sandhaus' appellate attorney Terrence Kehoe said he was "pleased that the court's decision will result in a reduced sentence for Mr. Sandhaus" but wouldn't elaborate further because of the ongoing case.
Sandhaus' family would not comment for the same reason.
Sandhaus' brother, Eric, was first arrested in the case after Torres' death. But Craig Sandhaus came forward and publicly admitted during a press conference that he was the knifeman.
The fight began, he later testified in court, after a man at the bar asked bouncers to escort the brothers out because he had a no-contact order with Craig Sandhaus from a previous battery case.
Before his trial, Sandhaus unsuccessfully invoked the state's Stand Your Ground defense to dismiss the charges.
When that failed, defense attorneys sought to cast doubt over who delivered the fatal stabs to Torres' chest and abdomen.
During the trial, defense attorneys asked Circuit Judge Alan Apte, who presided over the case in 2013, to reduce Sandhaus' conviction both before and after jury deliberation, Barker said.
Judges with the District Court of Appeal found Apte erred by not granting the motion to reduce Sandhaus' conviction from second-degree murder to manslaughter.
"In this case, no reasonable jury could conclude that the evidence, taken in the light most favorable to the State, established beyond a reasonable doubt that Appellant stabbed Torres based upon ill will, malice, hatred, spite or an evil intent," the court's opinion states.
"On the other hand, a reasonable jury could find … Appellant impulsively overreacted to seeing Torres hitting Appellant's younger brother as others joined in the fight."
A resentencing hearing has not been set yet, according to Orange County court records.
Source: Orlando Sentinel