The Duval County Courthouse. | Cyd Hoskinson, WJCT News 89.9The Duval County Courthouse. | Cyd Hoskinson, WJCT News 89.9
The Duval County Courthouse. | Cyd Hoskinson, WJCT News 89.9

Drug verdict overturned after prosecutors overstep

Published on February 15, 2024 at 4:35 pm

A conviction in a drug case was reversed after the Fifth District Court of Appeal said that two senior Duval County prosecutors made repeated improper statements during a trial in 2022. 

Prosecutors Richard Giglio and Joseph Licandro “inexcusably distorted the state’s most powerful evidence of guilt” when they kept telling the jury about an arrest that Antwan Stafford was not on trial for.

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A statement from State Attorney Melissa Nelson’s office said, “The assistant state attorneys involved in the Stafford case are capable and experienced attorneys who have successfully prosecuted many jury trials during their careers with the Fourth Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office.

“We reviewed the decision of the District Court of Appeal and remain committed to the heightened professional responsibilities placed on prosecutors as we continue to serve the people of the Fourth Circuit to make our community safer.”

Stafford was on trial for a 2020 arrest after drugs, three digital scales and small plastic bags were found throughout a Jacksonville home where Stafford lived. However, less than a year earlier in 2019, police had searched through the same home and also found drugs hidden then. Stafford was arrested, but the state declined to file charges, and Stafford was released. 

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During the later trial, Circuit Judge Anthony Salem agreed to let Giglio and Licandro use the evidence from the 2019 search to prove that Stafford knew drugs were in the home during the 2020 search, according to the appellate opinion.

The appellate judges found Salem was right to allow them to use the evidence in a limited way, but what the prosecutors did went far beyond what was allowed, the opinion said.

Giglio and Licandro brought up the 2019 charges repeatedly during the trial. Each time, the judge told the jury that they should consider only evidence from that search for the purposes of considering whether Stafford had knowledge of drugs being in the home in 2020.

Despite the judge’s orders, both prosecutors made “repeated improper references” to the earlier case during closing arguments, the appellate court ruled. The statements were made to convince the jury that Stafford was guilty of the same crime a year earlier, the opinion said.

Those comments included statements that the 2019 arrest had “no effect on him” and that his drug trafficking was an “ongoing operation.” The last thing the jury heard before deliberating was the prosecutors telling them Stafford “got away with it in 2019” and directed them to not “let him get away with it in 2020.”

Proving prosecutors violated a defendant’s rights isn’t enough to overturn a decision. Instead, the court must find that the violations were so extreme as to undermine confidence in the jury’s verdict.

Giglio’s and Licandro’s statements, the appellate judges ruled, met that high bar.

The Court of Appeal decision — made by judges Eric Eisnaugle, John MacIver and John Harris — also said Stafford’s defense attorneys’ lack of objections to the prosecutors’ statements was “incomprehensible.”

The defense attorneys’ failures, however, were no excuse for prosecutors violating Stafford’s rights, the 5th District Court of Appeal ruled.

“Prosecutors are nevertheless required to refrain from engaging in inflammatory and abusive arguments, to maintain their objectivity, and to behave in a professional manner,” the judges wrote. Giglio and Licandro “failed to meet that standard.”

author image Nichole Manna is The Tributary’s criminal justice reporter. You can reach her at or on Twitter at @NicholeManna.

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