Monthly Archives: February 2017

Taping Cops is Free Speech

McKinney police Cpl. Eric Casebolt is shown in a screen shot from video of an altercation in which he pulled his gun on a group of teenagers at a pool party. A witness, Brandon Brooks, uploaded this video of the incident to YouTube. In a recent 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, Justice Jacques Wiener wrote: “Protecting the right to film the police promotes First Amendment principles.”

The federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held that videotaping or filming police activities is protected by the First Amendment.

BACKGROUND FACTS
Phillip Turner, a computer science major at Austin Community College, started collecting video of police activities after he said a Cedar Park police officer blocked his view when filming a DUI arrest several years ago. He filed a complaint and during an investigation learned that there wasn’t an established right to film the police.
Armed with his understanding of the law, Turner has since posted a series of videos on his website where he challenges police officers and police department policies on videotaping of their activities.

On the day of the incident, Mr. Turner was video recording a Fort Worth police station from a public sidewalk across the street when Officers Grinalds and Dyess approached him and asked him for identification. Turner refused to identify himself, and the officers ultimately handcuffed him and placed him in the back of a patrol car. The officers’ supervisor, Lieutenant Driver, arrived on scene. after Driver checked with Grinalds and Dyess and talked with Turner, the officers released Turner.

He filed suit against all three officers and the City of Fort Worth under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his First and Fourth Amendment rights. Each officer filed a motion to dismiss, insisting that he was entitled to qualified immunity on Turner’s claims. The district court granted the officers’ motions, concluding that they were entitled to qualified immunity on all of Turner’s claims against them. Turner appealed.
THE COURT’S DECISION
Ultimately, the Court affirmed in part and reverse and remand in part.
“Filming the police contributes to the public’s ability to hold the police accountable, ensure that police officers are not abusing their power, and make informed decisions about police policy,” Justice Jacques Wiener wrote in an opinion joined by Justice Stephen Higginson. “Protecting the right to film the police promotes First Amendment principles.”

The 5th Circuit made it clear that such activity to be protected, saying that “a First Amendment right to record the police does exist, subject only to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions,” Justice Wiener wrote.

“Filming the police contributes to the public’s ability to hold the police accountable, ensure that police officers are not abusing their power, and make informed decisions about police policy . . . Protecting the right to film the police promotes First Amendment principles.”

The 5th Circuit sent the case back to the lower court to examine Turner’s claims that he was unlawfully arrested. The court cleared the officers on that point, determining the acted appropriately. In her dissent, Justice Edith Clements said Turner’s First Amendment rights were not violated and that the officers acted reasonably in detaining Turner.

Turner’s attorney Kervyn Altaffer called the 5th Circuit’s ruling a significant one in a complicated area of the law.

“I think any time one of the federal court of appeals says that something is protected by the Constitution, that is important for all people,” Altaffer said. “I definitely think they the police overstepped. … This is supposed to be a free country.”

My opinion? Cameras make everyone behave. And I’m extremely happy the 5th Circuit describes this behavior as protected free speech. Kudos to the 5th Circuit.

Special thanks to reporter Max B. Baker and the Bellingham Herald for reporting.

Lower .08 to .05?

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Interesting article from Heather Bosch of KING 5 news reports that Washington state lawmakers are considering lowering the legal limit for driving under intoxication (DUI) from .08 to .05.

“The research shows impairment begins with the first drink,” said Representative John Lovick, D-44th District. “And I believe this after being a state trooper for 31 years.” Lovick said he based his legislation, House Bill 1874, on recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board.

According to Bosche, however, the American Beverage Institute opposes the bill and similar legislation being proposed in Hawaii and Utah. The industry group claims only a small percentage of deadly car crashes are caused by drivers with a blood alcohol concentration between .05 and .08, and that a 120-pound woman could reach .05 with just little more than one drink. A 150-pound man could reach it after two.

“The move would target responsible and moderate social drinkers while ignoring the hardcore drunk drivers who pose the greatest threat to safety,” said American Beverage Institute Managing Director Sarah Longwell. In short, Longwell says what’s needed is better enforcement of current laws: “We have to focus on the real problem and not be distracted by feel-good legislation that criminalizes perfectly responsible behavior,” said Longwell.

Representative John Lovick agrees that current laws could be better enforced, but says lowering the alcohol limit to .05 would be “a great first step in letting the public know that we are serious about keeping people who drive drunk, off the streets.”

Bosche reports that a public hearing before the House Transportation Committee will be held Tuesday. The bill already cleared the House Public Safety committee, but not without controversy.

“There will be a few ‘no’ votes on this side of the aisle,” Representative Dave Hayes (R-10th District) said during a recent hearing. “My personal viewpoint on this is just the fact that I don’t believe it’s necessary to reduce the blood alcohol level, based on testimony and my own personal experience in processing DUIs.” Hayes is a sergeant with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.  Lovick is the former Snohomish County Sheriff.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said that if every state lowered the legal blood alcohol limit to .05, it would save 1,000 lives every year.

Interestingly, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) does not support the measure, calling it a “waste of time” because most people who are under .08 can pass field sobriety tests.

State Senate Passes Bill Making Fourth DUI a Felony.

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The WA State Senate has unanimously passed a bill that would make driving under the influence (DUI) a felony if the driver has three or more prior offenses on their criminal record within 10 years.

Senate Bill 5037 passed Thursday and now heads to the House, where it has stalled in previous years. The bill’s sponsors are as follows: Padden, Frockt, O’Ban, Darneille, Miloscia, Kuderer, Zeiger, Carlyle, Pearson, Conway, Rolfes, Palumbo, Angel, and Wellman.

Under the measure, a person who is charged with a fourth DUI, and has no other criminal history, would be subject to a standard sentencing range of 13 to 17 months in jail.

However, this bill allows first-time felony offenders to spend up to six months in jail, instead of nine, and finish out the rest of their sentence under supervision, such as attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and other programs.

My opinion? We shouldn’t be surprised. Over the past 20 years, Americans have seen a significant increase in the harsh penalties for intoxicated drivers. Perhaps this is necessary move given the thousands of lives lost to drunk drivers. Speaking as a criminal defense attorney, there’s serious question as to whether people commit these violations purely out of willful disregard for the law and for the safety of others or because of an untreated mental illness or alcohol addiction. Nevertheless, public outcry has led to increased sentences.

Many attorneys in Whatcom County and Skagit County claim to represent clients in DUI cases, but not all attorneys have the experience and successes of attorney Alexander F. Ransom.  To learn more about DUI laws or if you have been charged with a driving offense, make your first call count. Call the Law Office of Alexander F. Ransom today.

Trump v. Marijuana Legalization

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Officials in Washington state, where recreational marijuana is legal, vow to fight any federal crackdown on marijuana after White House spokesman Sean Spicer vowed to increase enforcement of anti-pot laws. Apparently, President Donald Trump does not oppose medical marijuana, Spicer added, but “that’s very different than recreational use, which is something the Department of Justice will be further looking into.”

In response, Bob Ferguson, attorney general in Washington state, said the following : “We will resist any efforts to thwart the will of the voters in Washington,” Ferguson said Thursday.

Trump’s enforcement of federal laws against marijuana steps away from marijuana policy under the Obama administration, which said in a 2013 memo that it would not intervene in states’ marijuana laws as long as they keep the drug from crossing state lines and away from children and drug cartels.

Eight states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

“Our state’s efforts to regulate the sale of marijuana are succeeding,” they wrote in the letter, which was released Thursday. “A few years ago, the illegal trafficking of marijuana lined the pockets of criminals everywhere. Now, in our state, illegal trafficking activity is being displaced by a closely regulated marijuana industry that pays hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. This frees up significant law enforcement resources to protect our communities in other, more pressing ways.”

Spicer’s comments came the same day a Quinnipiac poll said 59 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legal and 71 percent would oppose a federal crackdown. Also, three presidents over the last 20 years have each concluded that the limited resources of the Justice Department are best spent pursuing large drug cartels, not individual users of marijuana.

Nevada state Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford said in a statement Thursday that meddling in recreational pot laws would be federal overreach and harm state coffers that fund education.

My opinion?
I’m surprised Mr. Trump doesn’t see the financial benefits of legalizing marijuana for recreational use. In Washington state, sales at licensed pot shops now average nearly $4.4 million per day — with little evidence of any negative societal effects. That’s close to $1 billion in sales so far for the fiscal year that began last July, some $184 million of which is state tax revenue. Trump is a business man. If the facts are true, then why not allow states to regulate the issue within their borders? Better yet, why not legalize marijuana on the federal level?

The Right to Hope for Jury Nullification

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Interesting article by Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute discusses whether jury nullification could aid a defendant who is facing deportation in lieu of receiving bad legal advice.

According to Ms. Shapiro, defendant Jae Lee came to the United States legally as a child but never became a citizen. In 2009, he pled guilty to a drug crime after his lawyer assured him that he could not be deported. The lawyer was wrong, unfortunately, because the conviction made Lee subject to deportation.

When Lee learned of this mistake, he asked the court to vacate his plea so he could instead face trial, arguing that his counsel’s assistance was ineffective. The court denied this motion because of the overwhelming evidence against Lee, ruling that his conviction at trial was so certain that his counsel’s bad advice didn’t actually harm him, particularly given the much longer prison sentence he would receive if convicted after trial.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with the law court’s ruling that a jury wasn’t needed to determine Lee’s guilt and that denying the “chance to throw a Hail Mary at trial is not prejudicial” and therefore doesn’t violate Lee’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. The court reasoned that that the only chance Lee had was acquittal by “jury nullification” and thus such a gambit was so irrational—and the idea of nullification so antiquated—that it is not to be allowed.

For those who don’t know, jury nullification occurs when a jury returns a verdict of “Not Guilty” despite its belief that the defendant is guilty of the violation charged. The jury in effect nullifies a law that it believes is either immoral or wrongly applied to the defendant whose fate they are charged with deciding.

According to Shapiro, Mr. Lee is now taking the matter at the United States Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear his argument, which Cato is supporting with this amicus brief.

The Supreme Court must now protect the right to pursue Mr. Lee’s potentially risky trial strategy. Although it may not be wise for Mr. Lee to seek acquittal by jury nullification, he should also have the right to decide whether the risk is worth facing as against the certainty of deportation. According to Shapiro, “It is not up to courts to pick which strategy is best for criminal defendants to follow, but judges should protect the right to choose a jury trial even when they might not make the same choice under the same circumstances.” The Supreme Court hears argument in Lee v. United States on March 28, 2017.

My opinion? This is a very relevant, timely, progressive and news-worthy development. The new administration’s goals to deport criminal immigrants puts a lot of pressure on our courts to enforce these policies.

Ultimately, I predict an increase in post-conviction Motions to Withdraw guilty pleas based on Ineffective Assistance of Counsel under Padilla v. Kentucky, a 2010 United States Supreme Court case which held  that defense attorneys must inform their clients whether his plea carries a risk of deportation.

Contact the Law office of Alexander F. Ransom if you, family or friends are not U.S. citizens, yet face possible deportation for entering past guilty pleas which were ill-advised by defense counsel. Deportation is a terrible consequence for a prior attorney’s ineffective assistance of counsel.

Diminished Capacity Defense Denied

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In a deeply divided decision of 5-4, = the WA Supreme Court held in State v. Clark that the defendant’s Diminished Capacity defense was properly excluded at trial, even though lay witnesses could testify that the defendant was “slow,” participated in special education, and received Social Security disability benefits.

The defendant Anthony Clark killed the victim, D.D., with a single gunshot to the back of his head. D.D.’s body was found in a garbage can behind the triplex apartment building where Clark lived. There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting other than Clark himself. The State theorized that Clark killed D.D. with premeditation in order to steal D.D.’s gun and cocaine. Clark contended the shooting was an accident. The primary disputed issue was thus Clark’s level of intent.

CHARGES

Clark was charged with premeditated first degree murder, first degree felony murder, first degree robbery, unlawful possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, and second degree unlawful possession of a firearm. Clark pleaded not guilty on all counts.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Before trial, the defense moved to suppress statements Clark made to police after the shooting, contending that he did not validly waive his Miranda rights before speaking to police. To support its motion, the defense offered an expert evaluation from a doctor. At the suppression hearing, Dr. Oneal testified that Clark scored in the bottom first to third percentile in standardized intelligence tests. The court found that Dr. Oneal was a credible witness but denied Clark’s motion to suppress.

The State then moved to exclude testimony about Clark’s “intellectual deficits” for trial purposes. However, Clark argued that the doctor’s testimony was admissible for three purposes: (1) to help the jury understand Clark’s affect during testimony, (2) to explain why Clark does not work, and (3) to contest the State’s evidence of intent.

The court granted the State’s motion in part and excluded the doctor’s expert testimony because, in light of the fact that Clark specifically disavowed any intention to argue diminished capacity, expert testimony on Clark’s intellectual deficits would be irrelevant and confusing to the jury. It did, however, allow for relevant observation testimony bearing on Clark’s intellectual deficits, including his participation in special education, his receipt of Social Security disability benefits, and “that people who knew him considered him slow or tended to discount his testimony.”

JURY TRIAL

At trial, the defense renewed its request to admit the doctor’s expert testimony; arguing that the testimony was necessary to rebut the State’s evidence of intent and to explain Clark’s affect when he testified. Nevertheless, the defense consistently maintained that it was not asserting diminished capacity. The court adhered to its ruling excluding the doctor’s testimony and reminded counsel that relevant observation testimony by lay witnesses was admissible.

The defense brought testimony that Clark had been in special education, had an individualized education plan, and received Social Security disability benefits. It relied on this evidence in its closing argument, emphasizing that Clark was “not your average 20 year old” and arguing that in light of Clark’s actual intellectual abilities, the State had not proved intent to commit murder.

Clark was convicted of premeditated first degree murder as charged, as well as all the other charged counts.

ISSUES ON APPEAL

  1. Did the trial court properly exclude expert testimony regarding Clark’s intellectual deficits?
  2. Was trial counsel ineffective for failing to object when the State informed prospective jurors that it was not seeking the death penalty?
  3. Did cumulative error deprive Clark of his right to a fair trial?

ANALYSIS

1. The Court Properly Excluded Expert Testimony of Diminished Capacity Evidence.

The Court gave background that under ER 702, expert testimony is admissible “if scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” It also reasoned that diminished capacity “allows a defendant to undermine a specific element of the offense, a culpable mental state, by showing that a given mental disorder had a specific effect by which his ability to entertain that mental state was diminished.” Also, the intent to assert diminished capacity must be declared before trial. Pretrial disclosure is required because when asserting diminished capacity, the defense must obtain a corroborating expert opinion and disclose that evidence to the prosecution pretrial, giving the State a reasonable opportunity to decide whether to obtain its own evaluation depending on the strength of the defense’s showing,” citing CrR 4.7(b).

Ultimately, the Court rejected Clark’s arguments that his doctor’s expert testimony should have been admitted for the purpose of rebutting the State’s evidence of intent.

“However, expert opinion testimony that a defendant has a mental disorder that impaired the defendant’s ability to form a culpable mental state is, by definition, evidence of diminished capacity. And where, as here, the defense does not plead diminished capacity, such testimony is properly excluded.”

Additionally, the Court rejected Clark’s arguments that his doctor’s testimony should have been admitted for the purpose of explaining Clark’s unusually flat affect while testifying:

“The jury had the ability to evaluate Clark’s affect to the same extent it had the ability to evaluate the affect of every testifying witness, and Clark has not shown that Dr. Oneal’s expert testimony would have been helpful for that purpose.”

2. Defense Counsel Was Not Ineffective for Failing to Object When the State Informed Prospective Jurors It Was Not Seeking the Death Penalty.

The Court gave background that in order to prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show that trial counsel’s performance was “deficient,” and that, “but for counsel’s deficient performance, there is a ‘reasonable probability’ that the outcome would have been different.”

Here, the Court reasoned there was no indication that the jury disregarded its instructions or paid less attention to the evidence presented throughout Clark’s trial because it was told that the death penalty was not at issue.  Additionally, there was also no reason to believe that a contemporaneous objection by defense counsel would have reduced any potential for prejudice more than the court’s proper, written instructions did. “We thus hold that Clark has not carried his burden of showing prejudice and therefore has not established ineffective assistance of counsel.”

3. Cumulative Error Did Not Deprive Clark of His Right to a Fair Trial.

The Court reasoned Clark does not show any error, so the cumulative error doctrine does not apply.

CONCLUSION.

The Court concluded that Clark’s defense consisted of diminished capacity evidence. With that, the trial court properly excluded expert testimony from Clark’s doctor because Clark did not assert or plead diminished capacity or show that his doctor’s testimony was otherwise relevant. Moreover, the court properly allowed relevant observation testimony, which the defense relied on in its attempt to rebut the State’s evidence of intent. The Court affirmed his conviction.

THE DISSENT.

The dissenting judges reasoned that the trial court admitted certain lay observation testimony supporting the defense, but excluded the more neutral and more persuasive medical expert testimony supporting the same defense theory.  It also reasoned that the majority judges wrongfully equated all expert testimony about intellectual deficits with a diminished capacity defense. Additionally, the dissenting judges reasoned that by excluding defense evidence that could rebut the State’s evidence of intent, the trial court violated Clark’s constitutional right to present a defense. Finally, the dissenters reasoned that the exclusion of expert testimony on Clark’s mild mental retardation was not harmless error:

“To rebut the State’s evidence that he was a cold, calculated killer, Clark offered lay and expert testimony about how he was slow and did not process information the way other people his age did. But the trial court excluded most of it. It barred all testimony from Dr. Oneal about Clark’s substantial intellectual deficits. 6 Dr. Oneal would have testified, based on his personal testing and evaluation of Clark, that Clark was born prematurely and with significant developmental delays, was highly suggestible and therefore prone to change his story when pressured, and had a very low IQ score indicating that he had extremely poor perceptional reasoning, working memory, and verbal comprehension skills compared to others his age.”

With that, the dissenting judges held that the trial court improperly excluded evidence of Clark’s intellectual deficits in violation of the Evidence Rules and Clark’s constitutional right to present a defense; and that this error was not harmless.

My opinion? Diminished Capacity is a worthwhile – and difficult – defense to bring forward. Prosecutors consistently try to preclude defense counsel from bringing the defense. Here, it’s too difficult to determine why defense counsel did not assert the defense from the beginning. We’ll never know.

Unfortunately for Mr. Clark, it the majority court believed Mr. Clark did not properly assert the defense. Instead, it allowed Clark to get some evidence of his mental deficits through law witnesses. This is lawful, albeit not enough. A defendant can assert a roundabout defense of diminished capacity through law witness observations. What’s problematic, however, is that law witnesses won’t bring the requisite level of insight that experts bring.

Interesting opinion.

 

Deported After Conviction

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In State v. Manajares, The WA Court of Appeals Division III upheld the defendant’s 2002 conviction because at the time it was unforeseeable that the plea would result in deportation.

In December 2002, defendant Jose Manajares entered an Alford plea to one count of Unlawful Imprisonment, a Class C Felony. Before accepting the plea, the court asked Mr. Manajares if he understood that his “plea of guilty to this count is grounds for deportation from the United States, … exclusion from admission to the United States and denial of naturalization,” and he answered “Yes.” The court accepted the plea and sentenced Mr. Manajares.

Shortly after he entered the plea, Mr. Manajares was removed from the United States by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Almost 10 years after his 2002 conviction, Mr. Manajares filed a CrR 7.8 motion to vacate his Alford plea. He argued he received ineffective assistance of counsel because Manjares’s defense attorney failed to advise him that his conviction could result in deportation.

The Court reasoned that when determining whether a defense attorney provided effective assistance, the underlying test is always one of “reasonableness under prevailing professional norms.”

PADILLA V. KENTUCKY.

In Padilla, the United States Supreme Court recognized that immigration law can be complex,” and that “some members of the bar who represent clients facing criminal charges … may not be well versed in it.  Because “there will, therefore, undoubtedly be numerous situations in which the deportation consequences of a particular plea are unclear or uncertain,” the Court announced the following standard for assessing a criminal defense lawyer’s duty:

“When the law is not succinct and straightforward … a criminal defense attorney need do no more than advise a non-citizen client that pending criminal charges may carry a risk of adverse immigration consequences. But when the deportation consequence is truly clear, … the duty to give correct advice is equally clear.”

Therefore, the Court of Appeals reasoned whether Mr. Manajares’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim depended on whether truly clear adverse immigration consequences would follow from his 2002 plea that defense counsel failed to apprehend and explain.

IMMIGRATION & NATIONALITY ACT.

The Court also reviewed the Immigration and Nationality Act, “which holds that any alien convicted of, or who admits having committed, or who admits committing acts which constitute the essential elements of … a crime involving moral turpitude ( other than a purely political offense) … is inadmissible.” 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(2)(A)(i)(I). Here, the court reasoned it was unclear to both Mr. Manjares’s immigration attorney and his appellate attorney whether a conviction for unlawful imprisonment was an aggravated felony or a crime of moral turpitude which automatically triggers deportation.  Additionally, the court reasoned it is not automatically deficient performance for a lawyer to permit a client to enter an Alford plea. For all of these reasons, the Court decided there was ultimately no deficient performance on the part of defense counsel.

Mr. De Long’s review with Mr. Manajares of the general statutory deportation warning was therefore competent representation.

My opinion? In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Padilla v. Kentucky set the “bright line rule” that criminal defense attorneys must warn non-citizen clients of the risk of deportation if the defendant is considering a guilty plea. Employing Strickland v. Washington‘s test for evaluating whether legal counsel was “ineffective,” the Court held that criminal defense attorneys have an affirmative duty to warn their non-citizen clients of whether their guilty pleas carry a risk of removal from the United States, If counsel fails to issue a warning, he or she violates the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel.

Here, Padilla’s 2010 guidelines rules were not in effect because the defendant entered his plea in 2002. Therefore, defense counsel was no deficient in his performance.

Misconduct at Closing

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In In re Personal Restraint of Phelps, the WA Court of Appeals Div. II held (1) expert testimony is required if the State intends to rely on the grooming process to prove and argue  its case, (2) the Prosecutor improperly argued facts not in evidence about sexual grooming, and (3) this error resulted in prejudice to the defendant that requires a reversal of his convictions.

BACKGROUND

On June 8, 2012, Defendant Todd Phelps went to  trial on his charges of third degree rape and second degree sexual misconduct with a minor. In February 2011, the victim AA was a minor who began playing softball on her high school team. Mr. Phelps was one of her coaches. Apparently, Mr. Phelps groomed AA into having sexual relations with him.

At trial, the State did not present any expert or lay testimony about the grooming process.

In closing argument, however, the prosecutor discussed some of the topics that he questioned the jurors about during jury selection, including the grooming process:

“Then we talked about grooming. We talked about the process of grooming. And some people came up with examples of how someone who is grooming is going to be nice. They are going to try to get the trust of someone. They are going to try and isolate that person so that they can do an act against this person who is being groomed. And it’s not just the person who is being groomed, but it’s other people that are around as well that are being groomed.”

The prosecutor referred to the concept of grooming throughout his argument. For example, after talking about the alleged physical contact that occurred before the rape, the prosecutor argued,

“What is all this stuff that’s going on? What is all this physical contact between a coach and a student athlete? It’s grooming; it’s okay, every time I touch you, it’s okay, it’s okay. Eventually, it becomes the norm. The grooming isn’t in the open, folks. When people groom, they don’t do it so everybody can see. That’s not the way it works. It wouldn’t be called grooming. It would be called a crime because he’d be caught all the time.”

The prosecutor further discussed how the grooming process took place over time and that, as part of it, Phelps told AA stories about how his wife refused to sleep in the same bed with him, how his wife had made out with another man, and other statements about his wife that were attempts to make AA sympathetic to him. The prosecutor then commented about Phelps’s sexual comments to AA and his physical contact with her, stating that “these are the things that are going on that she’s being told and groomed with throughout their contacts.” After discussing MM’s father’s testimony about Phelps bragging about his ability to control AA’s emotions, the prosecutor argued,

“So let me talk about grooming again. At this point, point of the rape, [AA] is pretty much isolated from her entire family until she eventually is allowed to move with her aunt. Remember the stories about her family, her grandma, her cousin, her aunt. She’s told these sex stories by the defendant. She’s told to break up with her boyfriend, don’t talk to your counselor. The defendant is meeting with her in private with other students, but no adults around. He has made her feel important throughout this entire incident. She felt he was the only one she could talk to.”

These types of comments from the Prosecutor – and many others about grooming – were repeated and emphasized throughout closing argument.

The jury found Phelps guilty of second degree sexual misconduct with a minor and third degree rape. Phelps appealed on the issue of whether the prosecutor committed misconduct by introducing the concept of grooming in closing argument without any evidentiary support or foundation; i.e., arguing that the prosecutor argued facts outside the record.

THE COURT’S ANALYSIS

The court reasoned that the 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a defendant a fair, but not an error-free, trial. The burden to establish prosecutorial misconduct is on the defendant, who must show that the prosecuting attorney’s conduct was both improper and prejudicial. Prosecutorial misconduct is grounds for reversal only when there is a substantial likelihood that the improper conduct affected the jury.

Expert Testimony of Grooming.

The Court said expert testimony is required if the State intends to rely on the grooming process to prove and argue its case. Although the discussion of grooming in jury selection demonstrates that some of the jurors in this case had some general knowledge of grooming, this does not demonstrate that the jurors had the nuanced understanding of the grooming process that would enable them to understand its effect on things such as AA’s failure to report and how the grooming process may be used to influence others in order to increase the defendant’s credibility or undermine the victim’s credibility. Furthermore, the Court reasoned that the psychological complexities in understanding and evaluating the grooming process demand expert testimony to aid the jury.

Ultimately, the Court reasoned that because the prosecutor’s grooming argument encompassed issues that are beyond the jury’s common understanding, Phelps is correct that the prosecutor should have presented expert testimony on this matter if the State wished to rely on these concepts in closing argument.

Arguing Facts Not in Evidence.

The Court held that the Prosecutor’s use of the grooming concept in closing argument without first presenting testimony about the grooming process was misconduct.  There was no evidence of any kind before the jury explaining the grooming process, the potential purposes of grooming beyond achieving a sexual relationship with AA, or the effects of grooming on those around AA. Consequently, the State was required to present expert testimony on this aspect of the grooming process because these concepts were not within the common understanding of the jury. For that reason, the prosecutor was arguing facts that were not in evidence.

Flagrant, Ill-Intentioned & Incurable Prejudice.

The Court reasoned that the Prosecutor’s argument, without any evidentiary support, was also clearly prejudicial because it touched on credibility determinations that were key to this case given the circumstantial nature of the case and the lack of direct evidence of the criminal acts. The prosecutor’s argument focused on how Phelps’s grooming behaviors affected AA’s behavior and how those around AA perceived AA. It also was intended to rebut Phelps’s claims that his contact with AA was merely an innocent attempt to help a troubled young woman. Thus, this argument had a strong relationship to AA’s and Phelps’s credibility and potentially influenced the jury’s credibility determinations.

Finally, the Court reasoned that any resulting prejudice from the Prosecutor’s statements at closing argument could not have been cured by a jury instruction:

“We hold that Phelps has shown that the prejudice could not have been cured by an instruction. The repeated and pervasive use of the grooming concept makes it less likely that the jury followed this instruction, particularly when the grooming evidence was relevant to the core credibility issues in a case with no direct evidence of the actual crimes. Thus, Phelps has established prosecutorial misconduct.”

With that the Court reversed Phelps’ conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. As a practice, expert witnesses are required to testify about issues which are beyond the common understanding of jurors. The topic of grooming sexual assault victims certainly requires an expert. Period.