Ever wondered about the role of a prosecutor and their work within the community? Check out our new video!Thank you to the Karpel Foundation and the San Diego County District Attorney Office for their support in making this video.
Overall, it’s a good video. It accurately shows how prosecutors go about presenting cases against individuals who are suspected of breaking the law, initiating criminal investigations, conducting trials and recommending the sentencing of offenders.
Plea bargains are agreements between defendants and prosecutors in which defendants agree to plead guilty to some or all of the charges against them in exchange for concessions from the prosecutors. These agreements allow prosecutors to focus their time and resources on other cases, and reduce the number of trials that judges need to oversee.
In plea bargains, the defense lawyer and prosecutor discuss the case, and one or the other proposes a deal. The negotiations can be lengthy and conducted only after both parties have had a chance to research and investigate the case. Or, they can be minute-long exchanges in the courthouse hallway. Prosecutors usually agree to reduce a defendant’s punishment. They often accomplish this by reducing the number of charges of the severity of the charges against defendants. They might also agree to recommend that defendants receive reduced sentences. In this process, good criminal defense attorneys are persuasively effective at explaining the facts, the law and their defense theory.
Great criminal defense attorneys, however, have decent working relationships with prosecutors. These relationships are built on years of mutual respect and working on cases together in a straightforward, honest, ethical manner. Often, prosecutors know nothing more than the police reports and criminal histories of the defendants they bring charges against. They lack context and insight into why the parties involved criminal investigations behave certain ways. Based on that working relationship, great criminal defense attorneys are adept at humanizing their clients and persuading an otherwise hardened prosecutor to consider the deeper complexities of a case.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges. It’s important to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney like myself who appreciates the role of the prosecutor and works with them on a regular basis.
In In re Personal Restraint of Sandoval, the WA Supreme Court held that it was improper for the prosecutor to refer to the defendant as an “OG” (original gangster) in closing argument, where no one testified that simply being a longtime gang member was sufficient for “OG” status.
Sandoval is a member of the Eastside Lokotes Surefios (ELS) gang in Tacoma.
On February 7, 2010, ELS members, in a stolen van, pulled up to a car and fired no less
than 12 gunshots from at least two firearms into the passenger door of the car. The
driver, Camilla Love, was hit three times and died from her injuries.
During trial, the Prosecutor presented evidence indicating that Sandoval was a longtime ELS member. Sandoval concedes this. Evidence was also presented that OGs have elevated status. The trial court found this evidence sufficient to support a reasonable inference that
Sandoval was an OG.
Later, the jury ultimately convicted Sandoval as charged. The court sentenced Sandoval to a total sentence of 904 months of confinement. The ELS members who pleaded guilty received reduced charges.
Sandoval appealed. Among other issues on appeal, he argued that comments made by the prosecutor during rebuttal closing argument constituted misconduct and that this misconduct violated his constitutional right to a fair trial.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Prosecutor’s “OG” References were Improper But Did Not Prejudice Sandoval.
The court explained that in order to make a successful claim of prosecutor misconduct, the defense must establish that the prosecuting attorney’s conduct was both improper and prejudicial. To be prejudicial, a substantial likelihood must exist that the misconduct affected the jury’s verdict. The Court further reasoned that when a defendant objects to an allegedly improper comment, it evaluates the trial court’s ruling for an abuse of discretion. Failure to object to an allegedly improper remark constitutes waiver unless the remark is so flagrant and ill-intentioned that it evinces an enduring and resulting prejudice that could not have been neutralized by an admonition to the jury.
“While some of the prosecutor’s comments were improper, Sandoval fails to demonstrate prejudice,” said the Court. The Supreme Court agreed that the prosecutor’s repeated references to Sandoval being an “OG” during his rebuttal closing argument was an improper attempt to embellish Sandoval’s culpability to the jury because the inference was not reasonably supported by the record.
“But no one testified that simply being a longtime gang member was sufficient for OG status,” said the Court. The court reasoned that although a witness testified that an OG was one of the older original members of the gang, the witness did not identify Sandoval as such, instead naming older gang members who were incarcerated at the time of the Love shooting. “Thus, the evidence presented at trial was insufficient for the prosecutor to reasonably infer that Sandoval was an OG,” said the Court. “As a result, the OG comments were improper.”
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court also reasoned that the prejudice generated from such comments is negligible. Sandoval freely admitted he needed to be involved in the attack, attended planning meetings for the attack, and voluntarily assisted a co-defendant in searching out a target and keeping an eye on police that evening. “Given these admissions, it is not substantially likely that the jury’s mistaken belief that Sandoval may have been an OG would have affected the outcome in this case. “This claim has no merit,” said the Court.
2. The Prosecutor’s Racial Comments Were Not Improper.
Here, Sandoval claimed that the prosecutor improperly distinguished between the
gang status of Asian/Pacific Islanders and Latinos during rebuttal closing argument.
The Supreme Court explained that it is improper and a Sixth Amendment violation for a
prosecutor to “flagrantly or apparently intentionally appeals to racial bias in a way that
undermines the defendant’s credibility or the presumption of innocence.”
The court explained that when racial bias is implicated, the normal prejudicial standard for prosecutorial misconduct is elevated. To avoid a constitutional violation from prosecutorial misconduct based on comments appealing to racial bias, the State must demonstrate that the misconduct did not affect the verdict “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“However, this heightened standard does not apply every time a prosecutor mentions
race,” said the Court. “It applies only when a prosecutor mentions race in an effort to appeal to a juror’s potential racial bias, i.e., to support assertions based on stereotypes rather than evidence.”
The Supreme Court reasoned that here, the prosecutor referred to Asian/Pacific Islanders one time and did so to explain the hierarchy of the ELS membership; that is, only Latinos such as Sandoval could be full-fledged members.
The Supreme Court further reasoned that Sandoval, rather than the State, has the burden of demonstrating that the prosecutor’s comment regarding the role of Asian/Pacific Islanders was improper and prejudicial, and he fails to do so. The trial court did not err when it held that the prosecutor’s statement about gang hierarchy was a reasonable inference based on all the testimony that came out at trial.
“It is not substantially likely that any alleged improper comments by the prosecutor
prejudiced Sandoval,” said the Supreme Court. “This claim has no merit.”
With that, the Supreme Court upheld Sandoval’s conviction and sentence.
My opinion? Prosecutors are bound by a sets of rules which outline fair and dispassionate conduct, especially during trial. Generally, prosecutorial misconduct is an illegal act or failing to act, on the part of a prosecutor, especially an attempt to sway the jury to wrongly convict a defendant or to impose a harsher than appropriate punishment. If prosecutors break these rules, then misconduct might have happened.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member faces criminal charges, especially if it appears the prosecution is unfairly prosecuting your case. It’s important to hire defense counsel who know the scope and limits of which the government can go about proving its case.
In State v. Boyd, the WA Court of Appeals held that a prosecutor improperly disrespects defense counsel by using “bla, bla, bla” to describe opposing counsel’s argument. This phrase is both disrespectful and dismissive.
Boyd is homeless, has a ninth or tenth grade education, and is mentally ill. At the time of his crime in 1998, homeless sex offenders were not required to register as sex offenders because they did not have addresses. The legislature subsequently amended the statute to require homeless sex offenders who lacked a fixed address to update the county sheriff weekly, in person, of their whereabouts.
Boyd largely complied with the registration requirement but pleaded guilty to
crimes of failure to register in 2009, 2010, and 2013.
In March 2015, the State charged Boyd with failure to register as a sex offender between January 27, 2015 and February 10, 2015. The court ordered a competency evaluation after Boyd rambled incoherently during a pretrial hearing. A month later, after Boyd was found competent to stand trial, the court held another hearing. At that hearing, the court issued a scheduling order, which Boyd signed, setting the next hearing date for November 6, 2015. While explaining the order to Boyd, however, the court misspoke—it told Boyd that he needed to appear on December 6, 2015. After Boyd failed to appear on November 6, 2015, the Prosecutor added a charge for bail jumping.
During closing arguments, the Prosecutor appeared to have given a mocking and deragatory tone. After the jury retired to deliberate, Boyd’s defense attorney moved for a mistrial based on prosecutorial misconduct:
“During the prosecutor’s first closing argument, it was normal in tone, very even and level. And the rebuttal closing argument after I had given my closing, she started out and then repeatedly throughout that closing argument, either pretending she was me or Mr. Boyd, but was kind of in a sing-song tone, a complaining child-like type tone of voice when mentioning the barriers that my client faces as a homeless person and saying “bla, bla, bla,” and this was something that was repeated throughout the closing argument. And so I’d be making a motion for a mistrial based on—based on the prosecutor’s tone of
voice during the closing argument.”
The trial court denied the motion, explaining: “I did not hear what I consider to be a mocking or derogatory tone.” While the trial court agreed that the prosecutor used a different tone than her normal speech tone, it concluded that “having listened to many, many, many closing arguments, there was nothing in the tone that I heard that was derogatory or mocking or anything that grabbed my attention as being out of line, inappropriate or unprofessional.”
Boyd was convicted by a jury as charged and sentenced to 45 months in prison.
On appeal, one of the issues was whether the trial court abused its discretion by denying Boyd’s motion for a mistrial based on prosecutorial misconduct.
COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals said that the inquiry on prosecutorial misconduct consists of two prongs: (1) whether the prosecutor’s comments were improper and (2) if so, whether the improper comments caused prejudice. To show prejudice, the defendant must show a substantial likelihood that the prosecutor’s statements affected the jury’s verdict. The defendant bears the burden of showing that the comments were improper or prejudicial.
Here, the prosecutor’s references to Boyd’s “barriers” and chaotic life are not improper remarks about his homelessness, poverty, or mental illness because they rebut the very defense advanced by Boyd’s counsel—that complying with the law was “too much” for him because of his “barriers.” But we find that the prosecutor impugned defense counsel by stating “And again, Boyd’s Defense Counsel talks about chaos in his life, barriers, bla, bla, bla. No evidence of that.”
“Using ‘bla, bla, bla’ to refer to an opposing counsel’s argument is both disrespectful and dismissive. Although the statement does not imply deception or dishonesty like ‘crock,’ it implies that the arguments are unworthy of consideration and may be dismissed offhand. We find the statement was improper.”
Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals was not convinced that the Prosecutor’s statements during trial affected the jury’s verdict. “The court did not abuse its discretion by denying Boyd’s motion for a mistrial,” said the Court, and upheld Boyd’s conviction and sentence.
Justice Becker’s dissent focused on how poverty issues negatively impact justice as homelessness applies to offenders who have a duty to register:
“Our (failure to register) statute has grown steadily harsher, especially as applied to homeless offenders. I believe it is time to reconsider the ex post facto analysis of the statute in light of the changes since State v. Ward. I would join the jurisdictions holding that frequent in-person reporting requirements render a registration statute so punitive that applying it retroactively violates the constitution. I would reverse Boyd’s conviction and remand for dismissal with prejudice.”
My opinion? “Bl bla bla” issues aside, I agree with the dissenting Justice Becker when she says that frequent in-person reporting requirements render a registration statute so punitive that applying it retroactively violates the constitution. Being homeless is difficult enough by itself. Requiring homeless people to register under Washington’s rigorous “Duty to Register” statute is incredibly difficult, if not nearly impossible, for homeless people to follow and obey. As a a result, the law unequally punishes sex offenders for being homeless. That’s simply not fair.
Kelly suggest reforms to rein in the charging powers of prosecutors. He recommends the creation of independent panels of clinical experts that would screen offenders and recommend to prosecutors who ought to be diverted to treatment.
“There is nothing about punishment that changes the underlying conditions, disorders and deficits that the majority of criminal offenders bring into the justice system,” Kelly says. Arrestees with mental illness, substance-use disorders, homelessness and other problems churn through the system and into prison, where the underlying issues that led to a lawless life are ignored.
In a conversation with TCR Contributing Editor David J. Krajicek, Kelly explains why he believes the system should incorporate more carrot and less stick for offenders and how the Trump administration’s approach threatens to make things worse. He also suggests that the public already has a more sophisticated view of how to fix the system than our political leaders.
The Crime Report: What is the impact of the country’s justice policy failures?
William R. Kelly: The short financial and statistical answer is that over the past 45 years, we have spent $1 trillion on the war on crime, $1 trillion on the war on drugs and have accomplished a recidivism rate of 65 percent. Nearly all of this effort has focused on trying to punish crime out of people, based on naïve conceptions of criminality such as “hanging around with the wrong people” and “making bad decisions.” The evidence is quite clear that crime has much more complex origins and correlates.
What we have accomplished is a nearly perfect recidivism machine, placing all of us at the unnecessary and avoidable risk of criminal victimization, and wasting extraordinary amounts of money.
TCR: You refer to “the culture of American criminal justice.” What are its key characteristics and how do you change it?
Kelly: It is squarely based on the “tough on crime” mantra. This has dictated the decisions of legislators, prosecutors, judges, and corrections officials. The focus over the past 45 years has been driven by retribution and misguided assumptions that punishment deters re-offending. The question that has been routinely asked is how much punishment does this offender deserve. A more productive question for many offenders is how do we reduce the likelihood a particular offender will reoffend…
We need to provide clear incentives to motivate changing how we think about crime and punishment. Cost-benefit analyses conclusively show that behavioral change through clinical intervention like mental health and substance use disorder treatment is much more effective and cost efficient. The financial advantages should motivate legislators and local government officials. Reducing recidivism should be an incentive for prosecutors, judges, public defenders, and probation and parole officers, who will benefit from reductions in caseloads. Then there is the greater good of enhanced public safety, something we incorrectly assume the justice system already does.
TCR: You say the facile American view of crime and punishment got us here. Have voters grown more sophisticated, or are reform-minded pols still at risk of being Willie Hortoned?
Kelly: Public opinion data demonstrate that much of the public has a more nuanced view of crime and punishment than many legislators, prosecutors and judges. The public believes that the purpose of corrections is to rehabilitate offenders and therefore reduce recidivism. Many have moved beyond “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”
Unfortunately, many policymakers, elected officials and some segments of the public still seem to be holding on to the idea that criminals are just bad people deserving maximum punishment. I’m sorry to say that Willie Horton is alive and well…There appears to be a reluctance to really embrace meaningful, comprehensive criminal justice reform.
TCR: You write, “We have arrived at the nadir of politics and policy.” Did you write that before or after Donald Trump’s election?
Kelly: I wrote that before Trump was elected when I incorrectly believed that we had already reached bottom. Who would have thought that anyone with any sense of history and even a superficial exposure to the evidence would run as the law-and-order candidate and resurrect the war on drugs?
TCR: How do you demonstrate that “tough” and “dumb” are synonyms when it comes to criminal justice?
TCR: Who’s to blame for the state of “correctional malpractice” you say we are in?
Kelly: First and foremost, elected officials who have blindly championed “tough on crime” policies to their political benefit, but to the detriment of public safety and the prudent use of tax dollars. State legislators and Congress have provided the mechanisms for tough on crime—mandatory sentences, restrictive parole release laws, and an ever-expanding criminal code that seems to make criminal justice the go-to system for just about every social ill.
But the culpability of elected officials goes well beyond that. The vast majority of offenders in the criminal justice system have a substance-use disorder, 40 percent are mentally ill, and 60 percent have had a least one traumatic brain injury often leading to neurocognitive dysfunction…The decision to not properly fund public health, schools and social welfare agencies has created problems that by default are managed by the criminal justice system.
Criminal justice reform means much more than merely reforming the criminal justice system. It requires massive changes to and investment in a variety of collateral institutions.
TCR: Your book articulates and recommends a scientific approach to justice reform. Yet science is out of favor in Washington and many state houses. Is there a scientific path forward?
Kelly: Yes there is, but I am afraid that we need to disguise it for some, by minimizing the science and emphasizing the public safety benefits and cost savings.
TCR: You note an overlooked data point: The country has 21 million people with substance-use disorders, the world’s third-highest rate. What explains this particular American exceptionalism?
Kelly: It is largely a result of the lack of public substance abuse resources, including inadequate treatment capacity and insurance coverage. Much of it can be attributed to the failure of the war on drugs and the belief that we can either punish or threaten substance abuse out of people. Criminalizing substance abuse rather than treating it as a public health problem has led to the failure to provide adequate funding for treatment.
Unfortunately, the picture is bleaker. The majority of substance abuse and mental health treatment in the U.S. is paid for by Medicaid. Current versions of repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act call for substantial cuts to Medicaid. That does not bode well for a problem that is crippling the country, the economy, communities, families, and the justice system.
TCR: You write that we have used an absurdly simplistic approach (lock ‘em up) for a boundlessly complex problem. Explain briefly the research on co-morbidity among inmates.
Kelly: The vast majority of offenders in the criminal justice system have clearly identifiable disorders, deficits and impairments. Many have more than one disorder, known as co-morbidity or co-occurring disorders. For example, the majority of offenders with a mental illness also have a substance-use disorder. Neuro-cognitive problems are often co-morbid with mental health and substance abuse. It does not require a clinician to appreciate that “lockin’ ‘em up” does nothing to alleviate these conditions and in fact typically exacerbates them.
When we do attempt to address these problems–diversion to a drug court or a mental health court–our focus is on just one crime-related condition. Our correctional treatment and rehabilitation efforts typically ignore co-morbidity.
TCR: What do the rest of us in a presumably civilized society owe these damaged people?
Kelly: I don’t think it’s so much what we owe them, but what do we owe ourselves: lower crime and recidivism, lower risk of being victims of crime, and lower cost of criminal justice. We have the tools to accomplish these things, but making it a political priority has been elusive.
TCR: You compare the U.S. system to those of Germany and Holland; it doesn’t stack up well. You cite one lesson we can learn from those countries: “If you treat inmates like humans, they will act like humans.” How is it possible that we don’t know that already?
Kelly: In order to justify our draconian and dysfunctional reliance on punishment, we need to think of criminals as “not like us” in fundamental ways, as deserving retribution and harsh punishment. Punishment is what we have been told is the only thing “these people” will understand.
Psychological research confirmed a long time ago that, in most cases, incentives work much better than punishment for changing behavior. This is another example of the disjuncture between scientific evidence and criminal justice policy.
TCR: Your key recommendation is an “unprecedented expansion” of diversion away from court toward intervention and treatment. Describe the panel review process you suggest.
Kelly: Traditional criminal prosecution, conviction and punishment are entirely appropriate for many offenders. For example, violent offenders and chronic, habitual offenders probably need to be separated from society through incarceration in the interest of public safety. For many others, such as non-violent offenders and many drug offenders, we have a much better chance of reducing recidivism by diverting them and mitigating the factors that are associated with their criminality. One of the key issues here is making good decisions about who to divert and who to prosecute.
We developed the concept of independent panels of clinical experts to facilitate better decision-making, both in terms of who should be diverted and what treatment or intervention will decrease the probability of recidivism. Offenders often have complex clinical needs that require the special expertise of psychiatrists, psychologists and clinical social workers who can assess and diagnose, determine the risk of re-offending, and make recommendations to prosecutors.
The goal is to divert appropriate individuals away from traditional prosecution to situations where their risk can be supervised and managed and where they can receive adequate treatment and intervention.
TCR: And this is the “disruptive innovation” of your book title?
Kelly: The panels are part of it. Implementing this concept will require a substantial shift in how prosecutors do their jobs, as well as how we think about crime and punishment. In effect, this requires changing the criminal justice culture.
We also argue that all levels of government need to address major deficiencies in public health, a fundamental consideration in assuring adequate capacity and expertise for intervention and treatment. The bigger picture is that criminal justice reform requires disruptive innovation of collateral institutions, such as public health.
TCR: And how might it be greeted by prosecutors, who hold all the power right now?
Kelly: This will not be easy. However, reasonable incentives for prosecutors should be recidivism reduction, in turn reducing caseloads.
The primary reasons that prosecutors’ caseloads are so large and unmanageable relate to the failure to reduce recidivism.
TCR: You say these changes will force us to redefine success in our justice system. How so?
Kelly: Success should be measured by recidivism rates, something directly related to performance of criminal justice. As it stands now, there really is no accountability. Everyone involved in criminal justice–legislators, police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and corrections officials–should all be held responsible for recidivism reduction. That would also be a disruptive change.
TCR: Tell me about the process of partnering with Robert Pitman and William Streusand in this book.
Kelly: I wrote the book, but both Pitman and Streusand played very important roles in devising solutions. For example, Pitman, a former U.S. Attorney who is now a federal judge, brought his knowledge and expertise to the task of developing statutory and procedural details for how the expert panels would fit into the roles and responsibilities of prosecutors, defense counsel and judges.
The input of Streusand, a psychiatrist, was crucial in the development of the clinical protocol for the expert panels and assessing offender dysfunction, as well as the discussions about fixing public health.
TCR: You were going through a serious health crisis while writing this book, as you point out in the introduction. I hope you are doing well. I wonder if that diversionsomehow informed the book’s content.
Kelly: Thank you. I am in complete remission and feel very blessed. To be honest, it could not have worked out any better. I was diagnosed in early March of 2016, when I had a rough draft of one chapter written. I was so fortunate that I had this project to distract me from the reality of being pretty sick and going through some difficult chemo. It was also fortuitous that I had two collaborators who are very good friends and played important roles in my recovery.
I’m not sure that being sick informed the content, but I suspect it influenced the tone. If I sound impatient at times in the book, it is probably a result of being confronted with the reality that life is short.
**Excellent article, and excellent book by Mr. Kelly.
The report found more than 1,000 cases in which misconduct was alleged by criminal defendants and 120 in which a state appeals court reversed conviction due to misconduct. The group found an additional 134 verdicts reversed or thrown out due to misconduct after reviewing data from the state bar.
Balko says it’s difficult to draw conclusions from the raw number of incidents because most prosecutor misconduct goes unreported. He says the failure to turn over exculpatory evidence often becomes apparent only once a defendant has exhausted their appeals, after which the defense gets access to the prosecutor’s files. But by this point, many defendants no longer have legal counsel.
Additionally, Balko poignantly describes why defense attorneys intentionally do not report prosecutorial misconduct:
“When defense attorneys do find misconduct by prosecutors, there are also some strong incentives against reporting it. Most criminal defense attorneys will also have several other clients being prosecuted by the same office, perhaps even the same prosecutor. Reporting misconduct could jeopardize the attorney’s ability to bargain for those clients. Often, the more enticing option is to use the discovery of misconduct as a bargaining chip to get a better deal for the defendant in that case and perhaps earn favor from the prosecutor in others.”
“There are a handful of ways to keep wayward public officials honest,” says Balko. He believes in the success of electoral accountability as a viable option. Still, relying on voters to keep prosecutors honest is a risky proposition. “The groups more likely to be victimized by excessive prosecutors are also the groups with the least amount of political power.”
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.
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.
Last year, 68 out of 157 exonerations were cases in which the defendant pleaded guilty, more than any previous year. The numbers reflect an overwhelmed criminal justice system with public defenders taking more cases than they can handle; as well as court officials who try saving the government money with plea bargains compared with costly trials.
The data is even more daunting. Last year, more than 97 percent of criminal defendants sentenced in federal court pleaded guilty compared with about 85 percent more than 30 years ago, according to data collected by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The increase in guilty pleas has been a gradual rise over the last three decades.
No one knows exactly how many innocent people are behind bars for pleading guilty. Sociologists have estimated that between 2 and 8 percent of people who plead guilty are in fact innocent.
The article emphasized how defendants who were exonerated after pleading guilty often have prior criminal records and come from poor backgrounds and are not well-educated. They’re typically represented by public defenders juggling dozens of cases in a day.
Many exonerees were cleared of wrongdoing by taking a new look at DNA evidence in blood or other body fluids, according to the University of Michigan database. Some were the victims of prosecutorial misconduct, while shoddy police work was to blame in other cases — such as a mistaken FBI hair analysis or falsified fingerprint evidence. Some falsely confessed because of improper interrogation techniques while others maintained their innocence throughout.
Making the matter worse, it’s not just prosecutors and defense attorneys who seek to cut plea deals. The article said many judges prefer that route, too. Judges who resolve cases rather than let them languish tend to be seen as more successful. Similarly, explained the article, prosecutors who close cases tend to rise faster in their careers.
My opinion? People facing criminal charges MUST seek experienced defense counsel to defend their rights, investigate the facts, interview witnesses, argue pretrial motions, put their clients in the best light possible and conduct an active; fair trial when necessary.
Contact my office as soon as possible if you, a friend or family member is facing criminal charges. The epidemic of increased exonerations due to injustice in our courts as well as our incoming administration’s trampling of individual rights shows a growing need for competent representation. Put simply, defendants should not plead guilty to criminal charges they are not guilty of.
In State v. Hummel, the WA Court of Appeals Division I reversed a defendant’s conviction for first degree murder due to insufficient evidence of premeditation. It reasoned that proof of a strong motive to kill the victim does not, in itself, establish planning or the method of killing. Because the prosecutor did not request the court instruct the jury on murder in the second degree, the Court dismissed the case with prejudice.
The facts are interesting. Two juries in Whatcom County Superior Court found defendant Bruce Allen Hummel guilty of killing his wife, Alice Hummel. Both were retired Alaska teachers. Their two daughters lived on Alabama Hill in Bellingham in the early 1990s. This case was heavily covered in the Bellingham Herald.
The story begins with Mr. Hummel informing their children that their mother decided to move away and leave the family. Over the years, the girls continued to receive letters and gifts in the mail from Alice. Bruce Hummel told the girls Alice had earned a promotion and moved to Texas.
In 2001, the girls reported their mother missing in 2001. They recalled the strange circumstances of their mom’s disappearance. Bellingham police detectives found only traces of their mother’s existence: a current driver’s license from Alaska, monthly disability deposits from a teachers’ retirement system in Alaska, and withdrawals from a bank account in Alaska. Once detectives confronted him with $340,000 in disability checks he had collected under Alice’s name, Mr. Hummel admitted Mrs. Hummel had been dead for years. He claimed she committed suicide by cutting her wrists. Her body was never found.
Hummel was convicted of 12 counts of wire fraud in federal court, for the theft of the disability checks, then charged with murder in the first degree in Whatcom County.
At his first trial in August 2009, Hummel of first-degree murder in August 2009. He appealed as he started serving a sentence of 45 years in prison. The Washington State Court of Appeals found, in 2012, that that there was sufficient evidence to prove the case, but that Hummel’s rights were violated during voir dire, when potential jurors were questioned in private about sensitive issues in their personal lives. (Many other similar, serious cases have been overturned in Washington for not undertaking what is called the Bone-Club analysis, essentially a checklist to avoid violating a defendant’s right to a public trial).
At his second trial in May 2014, Hummel was again convicted of first-degree murder. This time he was sentenced to 26 years in prison, a shorter term because the Court of Appeals found his federal crimes should not count toward his criminal history because there was no comparable state law to federal wire fraud in 1990.
Hummel appealed with assistance from the Washington Appellate Project. Hummel argued there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction because the State did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the essential element of premeditation.
The Court of Appeals agreed. It reasoned that no trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Hummel killed Alice with premeditated intent to commit murder in the first degree. Reversal for insufficient evidence is “equivalent to an acquittal” and bars retrial for the same offense. Also, the Court reasoned that the Double Jeopardy Clause forbids a second trial for the purpose of affording the prosecution another opportunity to supply evidence which it failed to muster in prior proceedings. Because the prosecutor did not request the court instruct the jury on the lesser included crime of murder in the second degree, the Court of Appeals held it could not remand to enter a judgment on murder in the second degree.
The Court of Appeals reversed and vacate the conviction for premeditated murder in the first degree, and remand the case back to Superior Court to dismiss the conviction with prejudice.
My opinion? This isn’t over. I’m certain the State shall appeal to the WA Supreme Court.
According to Judge Kozinski, the White House released a report that fundamentally changes the way many criminal trials are conducted. The new study from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) examines the scientific validity of forensic-evidence techniques—DNA, fingerprint, bitemark, firearm, footwear and hair analysis. It concludes that virtually all of these methods are flawed, some irredeemably so.
The study indicates that only the most basic form of DNA analysis is scientifically reliable. Some forensic methods have significant error rates and others are rank guesswork. “The prospects of developing bitemark analysis into a scientifically valid method” are low, according to the report. In plain terms, says Judge Kozinski, “Bitemark analysis is about as reliable as astrology.” Yet many unfortunate defendants languish in prison based on bad science.
Even more disturbing, the article states that forensic scientists – who are often members of the prosecution team – sometimes see their job as helping to get a conviction. This can lead them to fabricate evidence or commit perjury, says Judge Kozinski. Many forensic examiners are poorly trained and supervised. They sometimes overstate the strength of their conclusions by claiming that the risk of error is “vanishingly small,” “essentially zero,” or “microscopic.” The report calls such claims “scientifically indefensible,” but jurors generally take them as gospel when presented by government witnesses who are certified as scientific experts.
Apparently, problems with forensic evidence have plagued the criminal-justice system for years.
The PCAST report recommends developing standards for validating forensic methods, training forensic examiners and making forensic labs independent of police and prosecutors. “All should be swiftly implemented,” says Judge Kozinski, who adds that preventing the incarceration and execution of innocent persons is as good a use of tax dollars as any:
“Among the more than 2.2 million inmates in U.S. prisons and jails, countless may have been convicted using unreliable or fabricated forensic science. The U.S. has an abiding and unfulfilled moral obligation to free citizens who were imprisoned by such questionable means. If your son or daughter, sibling or cousin, best friend or spouse, was the victim of voodoo science, you would expect no less.”
My opinion? Jurors rely HEAVILY on forensic evidence in their deliberations. And it makes sense: it’s a huge task to weigh evidence and sift through the rhetoric of arguments from the prosecution and defense. Cold, hard, quantifiable and scientific facts make it easy for jurors to render decisions.
Consequently, the information from this report is both good and bad news. It’s good because the truth about “voodoo science” in the courtroom has finally surfaced to the mainstream. It’s bad because hundreds, if not thousands of innocent people are convicted of crimes and serve years in prison based on unreliable evidence for crimes they didn’t commit.
Fortunately, there’s hope. According to Judge Kozinski, the report “provides a road map for defense lawyers to challenge prosecution experts.” Excellent.
Competent attorneys should immediately gain an understanding of challenging prosecution experts who bring voodoo science in the courtroom. It’s the only way to shed light on this grim subject and bring justice to our courts.
On the evening of August 11, 2012, a Washington State Patrol trooper observed Mr. Salgado-Mendoza driving his vehicle and struggling to stay in his lane of travel. The trooper stopped the vehicle. Salgado-Mendoza was investigated and arrested for DUI. His BAC test showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.103 and 0.104; which is over the .o8 limit.
Several months before his trial date on the DUI charge, Salgado-Mendoza requested that the Prosecutor disclose information about any and all expert witnesses the Prosecutor intended to call at trial. This regularly happens when defense attorneys argue motions to compel. The Prosecutor attempted to contact the toxicology lab by phone to narrow the list of possible toxicology witnesses, but was unsuccessful.
Three days before trial, Salgado-Mendoza filed a motion requesting that the court dismiss the case or exclude the toxicologist’s evidence based on governmental misconduct.
On the afternoon before trial, the State received a list of three toxicologists, one of whom might testify the next day. The State provided this list to Salgado-Mendoza.
When the parties appeared for trial on May 9, Salgado-Mendoza re-argued his motion to exclude the toxicologist’s testimony or to dismiss the DUI charge because the State had still not disclosed which toxicologist would testify. The Court denied the motion. Salgado-Mendoza was found guilty at trial.
Salgado-Mendoza appealed his conviction to the superior court. Finding that the district court had abused its discretion by (1) not excluding the toxicologist’s testimony due to the State’s violation of the discovery rules and mismanagement of the case in failing to disclose its witness prior to trial, and (2) excluding the defense expert’s testimony about the breath-alcohol testing machine, the superior court reversed the DUI conviction and remanded the matter for a new trial. The State appealed to the WA Court of Appeals.
Ultimately, the WA Court of Appeals held that the Prosecutor violated the discovery rules under CrRLJ 4.7(d) by failing to take reasonable steps to obtain the name of its witness in a timely manner. It reasoned that the Prosecutor had an obligation to attempt to acquire and then disclose that information from the toxicology lab. Consequently, the Prosecutor’s failure to provide the defense with a specific witness’s name before trial is not reasonable. This, in turn, amounted to governmental misconduct under CrRLJ 8.3(b).
Furthermore, the Court held that Prosecutor’s misconduct was prejudicial and that the exclusion of the toxicologist’s testimony was the proper remedy. The Court emphasized this remedy was necessary because the issue was an issue of public importance:
“On retrial, the State should ensure that it provides the name and address of the person or persons it intends to call at trial or comply with CrRLJ 4.7(d) when preparing for the new trial.”
My opinion? Good decision. It is extremely difficult to provide a competent and adequate defense when Prosecutors do not follow the rules of discovery.
For those who don’t know, a Prosecutor must follow many procedures when trying cases. The following procedures expedite a fair trial and protect the constitutional rights of the defendant: (i) promote a fair and expeditious disposition of the charges, whether by diversion, plea, or trial; (ii) provide the defendant with sufficient information to make an informed plea; (iii) permit thorough preparation for trial and minimize surprise at trial; (iv) reduce interruptions and complications during trial and avoid unnecessary and repetitious trials by identifying and resolving prior to trial any procedural, collateral, or constitutional issues; (v) minimize the procedural and substantive inequities among similarly situated defendants; (vi) effect economies in time, money, judicial resources, and professional skills by minimizing paperwork, avoiding repetitious assertions of issues, and reducing the number of separate hearing; and (vii) minimize the burden upon victims and witnesses.
Here, knowing the names of the Prosecutor’s witnesses before trial is simply fair. Period.