Category Archives: Prosecutorial Misconduct

High Court Strikes Racism in Jury Selection

The U.S. Supreme Court just sent a strong message about racism in the justice system.

In Foster v. Chatman, the Court reversed a defendant’s murder conviction after discovering that the Prosecutor systematically eliminated African American jurors from serving on Mr. Foster’s jury because of their race.

Petitioner Timothy Foster was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in a Georgia court. During jury selection at his trial, the State used peremptory challenges to strike all four black prospective jurors qualified to serve on the jury.

Foster argued that the State’s use of those strikes was racially motivated, in violation of Batson v. Kentucky. The trial court rejected that claim, and the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed. Foster then renewed his Batson claim in a state habeas corpus proceeding.

While that proceeding was pending, Mr. Foster’s defense attorneys used the Georgia Open Records Act to obtained the Prosecutor’s file used during trial. In notes, prosecutors had highlighted the African Americans on several different lists of potential jurors. On one list, under the heading “Definite NOs,” prosecutors listed six potential jurors, all but one of whom were black.

Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court granted review of the case on the issue of whether the Georgia courts erred in failing to recognize race discrimination under Batson v. Kentucky in the extraordinary circumstances of this death penalty case.

The Court reasoned that the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision that Foster failed to show purposeful discrimination was clearly erroneous. They started with Batson’s three-step process for adjudicating claims such as Foster’s. First, a defendant must make a prima facie showing that a preemptory challenge has been exercised on the basis of race. Second, if that showing has been made, the prosecution must offer a race-neutral basis for striking the juror in question. Third, the trial court must determine whether the defendant has shown purposeful discrimination.”

Here, and in sum, the Court reasoned that Foster established purposeful discrimination in the State’s strikes of two black prospective jurors:

” . . . along with the prosecution’s shifting explanations, misrepresentations of the record, and persistent focus on race, leads to the conclusion that the striking of those prospective jurors was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent . . . the focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.”

My opinion? Good decision. The decision is a forceful blow against racism in the courts. Although the Foster decision won’t end racial discrimination in jury selection, it is certainly vindication for the potential jurors who weren’t allowed to fulfill their civic duty all those years ago because of their race. As for Foster, his future is still in limbo. The Supreme Court’s decision entitles him to a new trial before a jury of his peers that hasn’t been tainted by racial discrimination. Still, that mere fact doesn’t guarantee a different outcome. The new jury may come to the same conclusion as the old one. But if nothing else, Mr. Foster’s death penalty has likely been put off for many years to come. And in the world of death penalty litigation, that counts as a win.

State v. Thierry: Prosecutor’s Improper Closing Argument Reverses Conviction.

In State v. Thierry, the WA Court of Appeals Division II decided that a Prosecutor’s statements during the closing argument of a child sex abuse case was an improper appeal to passion and prejudice.

The State charged Alfred James Thierry Jr. with four counts of Rape of a Child First Degree and two counts of Child Molestation First Degree, based on conduct against his son, JT.

At trial, the Prosecutor’s closing argument discussed direct versus circumstantial evidence. This explanation included the following:

“None of you were present when these acts occurred. No one testified for you that they watched any of these acts happen. That would be direct evidence of the acts themselves, but that is not required and, if it were, the State could never prosecute any of these types of cases.”

She made a similar argument shortly thereafter, in a discussion of the sufficiency of the State’s evidence:

“Did Thierry rape and molest his son? Yes, he did. The evidence tells you that he did. What’s the evidence? JT is the evidence, and he is all that is required for you to find him guilty of these crimes. If the law required more, if the law required anything, something, anything beyond the testimony of a child, the child’s words, JT’s words, those instructions would tell you that, and there is no instruction that says you need something else. And, again, if that was required, the State could rarely, if ever, prosecute these types of crimes because people don’t rape children in front of other people and often because children wait to tell.”

She again returned to this argument near the end of her initial closing remarks, in discussing the burden of proof:

“Now I want to talk just briefly about the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. You don’t need to know all of the pieces. You don’t need to have all of the information or have all of the answers. If that were necessary, first of all, the standard would be beyond all doubt possible, but if that were necessary, once again, the State would not be able to prosecute any of these crimes or really any crime, actually, because how can you all as jurors who are selected from the community know nothing about any of the people involved, and certainly yourselves were not present for any act or crime that was committed, how can you know with 100 percent certainty?”

The prosecutor continued in this vein during rebuttal, returning to her public policy theme:

Defense counsel wants you to basically disregard everything that JT has said between what he told Sayfullah, between what he told Ms. Arnold-Harms, between when he told his primary care provider Ms. Lin and what he told Amber Bradford. ‘Just disregard all of that because he’s a child, because he was 8 when he said these things and because he was 9 when he was on the stand. Nothing he said is credible so just disregard it all.’ If that argument has any merit, then the State may as well just give up prosecuting these cases, and the law might as well say that “The word of a child is not enough.

At that point Thierry’s defense attorney objected that the prosecutor was “fueling the passion and prejudice of the jury.” The court overruled the objection and permitted the prosecutor to continue.

The jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts.

Thierry appealed that several of the remarks the Prosecutor made in closing argument merit reversal. He also argued that the cumulative effect of the improper statements denied him a fair trial.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals agreed with Thierry and decided that the Prosecutor’s arguments were improper and that it had a substantial likelihood of affecting the verdict.

The court reasoned that as a general matter, to prevail on a prosecutorial misconduct claim a defendant must show that the prosecutor’s conduct was both improper and prejudicial in the context of the record and all of the circumstances of the trial. To establish prejudice sufficient to require reversal, a defendant who timely objected to the challenged conduct in the trial court must show a substantial likelihood that the misconduct affected the jury verdict.

The Court further reasoned that it’s improper for prosecutors to use arguments calculated to inflame the passions or prejudices of the jury.  Arguments that compel the jury to send a message to society about the general problem of child sexual abuse qualifies as such an improper emotional appeal.

Here, the Prosecutor’s statement that, “If Defense Counsel’s argument concerning JT’s credibility has any merit, . . . the State may as well just give up prosecuting child sex abuse cases, and the law might as well say that ‘the word of a child is not enough’” also qualified as an improper appeal to passion and prejudice.

The Court further reasoned that even if the Prosecutor’s argument was deemed purely a response to the defendant’s argument, Defense Counsel never suggested that the jury should not believe JT because of his age. Furthermore, nothing in Defense Counsel’s closing argument, therefore, warranted the prosecutor’s message that the State may as well give up prosecuting child sex abuse cases if JT were not believed and Thierry acquitted.

Finally, the court reasoned that the Prosecutor’s arguments had a substantial likelihood of affecting the verdict. The outcome of the case depended entirely on whether the jury chose to believe JT’s accusations or Thierry’s denial. Consequently, the Prosecutor’s remarks created a substantial risk that the jury decided to credit JT’s testimony for improper reasons. The prosecutor’s remarks exacerbated that risk by misrepresenting Defense Counsel’s argument so as to unfairly undermine Thierry’s defense.

The Court of Appeals reversed Thierry’s convictions and remanded the case for further proceedings.

My opinion? Good decision. Generally, it’s a professional courtesy to not object during opposing counsel’s closing arguments. It’s considered rude. Nevertheless, defense attorneys must object at all times when appropriate, even if doing so is frowned upon by judges and juries. Prosecutorial misconduct happens all of the time, and ESPECIALLY during closing arguments. Those statements, made again and again, definitely affected the outcome of the case. Again, good decision.

State v. Cayetano-James: Prohibiting Phone Call Testimony

In State v. Cayetano-James, the WA Court of Appeals Division I decided the trial court mistakenly denied the defendant’s motion to have a witness testify telephonically from Mexico.

The defendant was charged with Rape of a Child in the First Degree. While the case was pending, he filed a notice of the defense of alibi. The Prosecutor changed the trial dates and amended the charges. In response, Defense Counsel filed and argued a motion to dismiss under CR 8.3(b). Because of this, Defense Counsel argued a potential witness in Mexico will most likely need to be contacted to refute the amendment to the charges.

On March 27, 2013, the trial court heard a defense motion to permit the telephonic testimony of Laura Camacho. Defense counsel argued that because of Camacho’s immigration status, the court should allow her to testify by telephone or, alternatively, order her telephonic deposition. Although Defense Counsel argued that Camacho’s testimony was material, the court denied the motion for telephonic testimony. The court also denied Defense Counsel’s motion for a continuance. Finally, at trial, the court excluded Camacho’s Skype testimony and phone call testimony of other witnesses. Not surprisingly, the jury returned a verdict of guilty.

On appeal, the WA Court of Appeals held the trial court abused its discretion by excluding the telephonic testimony of this defense witness.

First, the court reasoned that the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 3 of the Washington Constitution guarantee that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” This right to due process includes the right to be heard and to offer testimony. The accused’s right to due process is, in essence, the right to a fair opportunity to defend against the State’s accusations.

Second, said the court, the right to call witnesses in one’s own behalf has long been recognized as essential to due process. “Just as an accused has the right to confront the prosecution’s witnesses for the purpose of challenging their testimony, he has the right to present his own witnesses to establish a defense.” Additionally, Washington courts have broad authority under ER 611 to control trial proceedings and also have discretion to permit telephonic testimony under CR 43(a)(1).

Finally, the trial court abused its discretion when it excluded “essential facts of high probative value whose exclusion effectively barred [the defendant] from presenting his defense” without a showing by the State that allowing Camacho to testify by telephone would disrupt the fairness of the fact-finding process. This deprived the Defendant’s witness of the opportunity to present testimony that would have been relevant, material and vital to the defense; and violated his constitutional right to present a complete defense.

The court reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. Obstructing a defendant from presenting witnesses for their defense violates the 6th Amendment. Period.

State v. Irby: A Juror’s Bias Reverses Conviction

Image result for jury selection

In State v. Irby, The WA Court of Appeals reversed the murder conviction of a defendant because a juror’s remarks during jury selection indicated her express bias against the defendant.

In reaching their decision, the court reasoned that when a juror makes an unqualified statement expressing actual bias, seating the juror is a manifest constitutional error that may be raised on appeal. Also, a juror’s statement during voir dire that she “would like to say he’s guilty” requires a new trial because no inquiry was made from the Prosecution that would have neutralized the statement.

In 2005, James Rock was murdered at his home in rural Skagit County. The investigations led to Terrance Irby, a known associate of Rock. Rock’s neighbors had seen Irby in the neighborhood on March 8. Irby was soon located in custody in Marysville. He had been arrested there on March 8, after running a red light and attempting to elude police. In Irby’s truck, officers found Rock’s weapons and boots splashed with Rock’s blood.

Irby was arrested and charged with Aggravated Murder in the First Degree, Burglary in the First Degree, and Felony Murder.

Oddly enough, in 2011, the WA Supreme Court had already reversed Irby’s convictions because of a violation of his right to a public trial. The violation occurred when the court and the attorneys agreed by e-mail, without Irby’s participation, to dismiss some of the potential jurors before voir dire began.

The State recharged the case. He awaited trial.  Irby had three different standby counselors while his case was pending. Irby fired all of them before the second trial began. As a consequence, the trial court granted Irby’s request to proceed pro se; or in other words, by himself without defense counsel.

On March 5, 2013—the first day scheduled for jury selection —Irby voluntarily absented himself from the proceedings. Irby said he did not believe he could get a fair trial in Skagit County. Trial became somewhat of a circus. By Irby’s choice, the trial proceeded before a jury that had been picked without any participation by Irby. Every day before trial resumed, the trial court had Irby brought from the jail into the courtroom so that the court could verify that he still wanted to remain absent.

The jury convicted Irby as charged on March 12, 2013.

The primary issue on appeal was whether juror bias – specifically, the bias of the juror who said she “would like to say he’s guilty” – violated Irby’s right to a fair and impartial jury.

In reaching its decision the Court of Appeals reasoned that under RAP 2.5(a)(3), a party may raise for the first time on appeal a “manifest error affecting a constitutional right.” Here, criminal defendants have a federal and state constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury. Criminal defendants have a federal and state constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury. The error alleged here, seating a biased juror, violates this right.

Furthermore, the court reasoned that seating that particular juror manifested actual bias. Under RCW 4.44.170(2) actual bias is “the existence of a state of mind on the part of the juror in reference to the action, or to either party, which satisfies the court that the challenged person cannot try the issue impartially and without prejudice to the substantial rights of the party challenging.” The Court of Appeals said both thetrial judge and the Prosecutor failed to elicit any assurances from that juror that she had an open mind on the issue of guilt. This was wrong.

The Court of Appeals concluded that the juror at question demonstrated actual bias and that seating her was manifest constitutional error requiring reversal of all convictions and remand for a new trial.

My opinion? It’s awful and tragic that Mr. Rock died a violent and painful death. My condolences go to his family and everyone who cared for him. Anyone in their circumstance would want the murderer brought to justice and convicted for these horrible crimes.

However, gaining convictions is meaningless if the courts and prosecutors violate a defendant’s rights in the process. It devalues the entire criminal justice system. It loses credibility and coherence.

Perhaps the Judge and Prosecutor failed to make a record of “rehabilitating” that particular juror of her biases – a process which happens at EVERY jury trial I’ve conducted – because neither Mr. Irby nor a criminal defense attorney was at jury selection to attempt to strike that particular juror for cause. Neverthless, all of us now have a greater understanding of why it’s necessary for attorneys to engage the colloquy of ensuring that jurors are NOT biased – even when they most certainly are.

Eliminating biased jurors from trial not only ensures a fair trial for the defendant. It also creates a court record for ensuring that jury verdicts are not overturned on appeal. As this one was.

Good decision.

Prosecutor Jailed for Bad Conviction.

For the first time ever, a Prosecutor will go to jail for wrongfully convicting an innocent man.

In Texas, former prosecutor and judge Ken Anderson pled guilty to intentionally failing to disclose evidence in a case that sent an innocent man, Michael Morton, to prison for the murder of his wife. 

When trying the case as a prosecutor, Anderson possessed evidence that may have cleared Morton, including statements from the crime’s only eyewitness that Morton was NOT the culprit. Anderson sat on this evidence, and then watched Morton get convicted. While Morton remained in prison for the next 25 years, Anderson’s career flourished, and he eventually became a judge.

Anderson pled to criminal contempt. He will have to give up his law license, perform 500 hours of community service, and spend 10 days in jail. Anderson had already resigned in September from his position on the Texas bench.

What makes today’s plea newsworthy is not that Anderson engaged in misconduct that sent an innocent man to prison. Indeed, while most prosecutors and police officers are ethical and take their constitutional obligations seriously, government misconduct–including disclosure breaches known as Brady violations–occurs so frequently that it has become one of the chief causes of wrongful conviction.

What’s newsworthy and novel about today’s plea is that a prosecutor was actually punished in a meaningful way for his transgressions. Rogue cops and prosecutors going unpunished is the rule rather than the exception. 

My opinion? Ken Anderson’s conviction and incarceration is an anomaly in a society where police and prosecutorial misconduct goes largely unpunished. But it is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, today’s result will deter rogue cops and prosecutors in the future from engaging in similar misconduct. But this will happen only if judges across the country do what the judge did more than 25 years ago in the Morton case: issue an order requiring that proper disclosure to the defense, or risk criminal contempt proceedings.

For defense attorneys, the best way to prevent similar miscarriages of justice from happening is to explicitly write in the Demand for Discovery, “Any evidence which tends to negate the guilt of the accused as to the offense charged or which would tend to mitigate the accused’s punishment.” According to court rule and statute, the Prosecutor must disclose this evidence.

Also, entering an Omnibus Order signed by the judge tends to put attorneys on their best behavior. An omnibus hearing is a criminal pretrial hearing. Typically, disclosure of evidentiary matters, procedural, and constitutional issues are attempted to be resolved. In my Omnibus Motions/Orders I (again) request all evidence from the Prosecutor which tends to negate the defendant’s guilt.

Creating a court record like the one described above puts all parties on notice that discovery violations will NOT be tolerated. In some cases, I’ve sought sanctions against Prosecutors when I later discover they withheld evidence that they later tried to get admitted at trial.

State v. Walker: WA Supreme Court Decides Prosecutor’s Powerpoint Presentation Violates Defendant’s Right to Fair Trial

EXCELLENT opinion. In State v. Walker, the Washington Supreme Court decided the Prosecutor improperly used a PowerPoint presentation during closing argument to convey egrigious misstatements which violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

At his jury trial, defendant Odies Delandus Walker was convicted as an accomplice to Murder in the First Degree, Assault in the First Degree, Robbery in the First Degree Solicitation and Conspiracy. The WA Supreme Court addressed the issue as whether those convictions must be reversed in light of the Power Point presentation the prosecuting attorney used during closing argument.

The Prosecutor’s presentation repeatedly expressed the prosecutor’s personal opinion on guilt-over 100 of its approximately 250 slides were headed with the words “DEFENDANT WALKER GUILTY OF PREMEDITATED MURDER,” and one slide showed Walker’s booking photograph altered with the words “GUILTY BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT,” which were superimposed over his face in bold red letters. The prosecutor also appealed to passion and prejudice by juxtaposing photographs of the victim with photographs of Walker and his family, some altered with the addition of inflammatory captions and superimposed text (please click the above link to the Walker opinion for a look at the specific Powerpoint slides and images).

In reaching its decision, the court reasoned that while the prosecutor is entitled to draw the jury’s attention to admitted evidence, those slides, as presented, served no legitimate purpose. Their prejudicial effect could not have been cured by a timely objection, and we cannot conclude with any confidence that Walker’s convictions were the result of a fair trial. Consistent with both long-standing precedent and our recent holding in In re Personal Restraint of Glasmann, 175 Wn.2d 696, 286 P.3d 673 (2012), the court reversed Walker’s convictions and remanded for a new trial.

The Court also gave some powerful language regarding how the prosecution committed serious misconduct in the portions of the PowerPoint presentation discussed above:

“We have no difficulty in holding the prosecutor’s conduct in this case was improper. Closing argument provides an opportunity to draw the jury’s attention to the evidence presented, but it does not give a prosecutor the right to present altered version of admitted evidence to support the State’s theory of the case, to present derogatory depictions of the defendant, or to express personal opinions on the defendant’s guilt. Furthermore, RPC3.4(e) expressly prohibits a lawyer from vouching for any witness’s credibility or stating a personal opinion ‘on the guilt or innocence of the accused.’”

My opinion? Good decision. It’s very encouraging for trial attorneys to learn from these opinions. For example, we can argue Motions in Limine asking that the State’s PowerPoint presentations are disclosed in advance of closing arguments. The Walker opinion expressly endorses this approach.

Furthermore, this is the second opinion this month handed down by the WA Supremes regarding Prosecutorial Misconduct during closing arguments (please read my blog on State v. Allen). It appears the WA Supremes are on a roll.

Good opinion!

State v. Allen: Prosecutor Commits Misconduct With Phrase, “Should Have Known.”

In State v. Allen, the WA Supremes ruled that the Prosecuting Attorney committed prejudicial misconduct by misstating the standard upon which the jury may convict an accomplice.

This case involves the Lakewood police officer shootings.

The defendant Mr. Allen was friend and co-worker of Maurice Clemmons, who fatally shot four police officers in a coffee shop on November 29, 2009. Mr. Allen’s involvement transpired on the days leading up to the shooting.

This tragic story began in May 2009 when officers responded to reports that Clemmons was throwing rocks through his neighbors’ windows. Clemmons responded violently when officers arrived at the scene, and he was arrested for punching officers. He posted bail in November 2009, the month of the shootings.

Shortly after his release, Clemmons attended Thanksgiving dinner at his aunt’s house, where he expressed animosity toward the police. Specifically, he announced that if the police arrived to look for him, he would kill them and then go across the street to the elementary school and commit further acts of violence. Clemmons brandished a handgun while he described these acts. Allen, who was a friend and employee of Clemmons, was present at that dinner.

Three days later, Clemmons contacted Allen and told him they were going to wash the company truck. With Allen driving, Clemmons directed him to a car wash near a coffee shop in Lakewood. Upon arriving at the car wash, Allen parked the truck, got out, and walked across the street to a minimart. During that time, Clemmons also left the car wash and entered the coffee shop, where the shootings occurred. When Allen returned to the truck, Clemmons appeared and told Allen that they had to leave. Allen claimed he drove only a few blocks until he left the truck upon discovering Clemmons was wounded. Allen also claimed that he did not know Clemmons was going to commit the murders.

Clemmons eventually ended up at his aunt’s house, and the truck was abandoned in a nearby parking lot. A few days later, Clemmons was killed by a Seattle police officer. Allen was arrested shortly afterward.

Allen was charged with four counts of Aggravated Murder in the first Degree. During trial, several spectators wore T -shirts that said, “‘You will not be forgotten, Lakewood Police,”‘ followed by the names of the four murdered officers. Allen objected to these T-shirts and asked that the shirts be covered. The trial court denied Allen’s motion.

At closing argument, the State was required to prove that Allen had actual knowledge that Clemmons would commit the murders. During closing argument, the prosecuting attorney initially stated the correct definition of “knowledge” as it was used in the jury instruction. However, immediately afterward, the prosecuting attorney stated that “for shorthand we’re going to call that ‘should have known.'” Also, the prosecuting attorney went on to repeatedly and improperly use the phrase “should have known” when describing the definition of “knowledge.” The prosecuting attorney also presented a slide show simultaneously with his closing argument. This slide show repeatedly referred to the incorrect “should have known” standard. One slide even stated, “You are an accomplice if: … you know or should have known,” with the words “should have known” in bold. The prosecuting attorney made several more “should have known” comments in rebuttal argument.

The jury received instructions that correctly stated the law regarding “knowledge.” Particularly, instruction 9 said the following:

A person knows or acts knowingly or with knowledge with respect to a fact or circumstance when he or she is aware of that fact or circumstance. If a person has information that would lead a reasonable person in the same situation to believe that a fact exists, the jury is permitted but not required to find that he or she acted with knowledge of that fact.

 Allen was convicted of four counts of Murder in the First Degree. Based on the aggravating circumstance, the trial court imposed an exceptional sentence of 400 years.

ISSUES ON APPEAL

The Court granted review on three issues: (1) Did the prosecuting attorney commit prejudicial misconduct by misstating the standard upon which the jury could convict Allen? (2) Does the “aggravator” found in RCW 9.94A.535(3)(v) apply to a defendant charged as an accomplice? (3) Was Allen prejudiced when spectators at trial wore T -shirts bearing the names of the murdered officers?

1. DID THE PROSECUTOR COMMIT MISCONDUCT?

The court ruled the Prosecutor committed prejudicial misconduct by misstating the standard upon which the jury could find Allen guilty. Here, the prosecuting attorney repeatedly misstated that the jury could convict Allen if it found that he should have known Clemmons was going to murder the four police officers.

The Court reasoned that, for example, the prosecuting attorney stated that “under the law, even if he doesn’t actually know, if a reasonable person would have known, he’s guilty.” As noted above, the “should have known” standard is incorrect; the jury must find that Allen actually knew Clemmons was going to murder the four police officers. Consequently, the Court concluded that the remarks were improper.

Furthermore, the improper comments prejudiced the defendant. First, the Prosecutor misstated a key issue of the case – knowledge. Second, the misstatement of law was repeated multiple times. Repetitive misconduct can have a “cumulative effect.” Third, the trial court twice overruled Allen’s timely objections in the jury’s presence, potentially leading the jury to believe that the “should have known” standard was a proper interpretation of law. Fourth, and perhaps most important, the record reveals that the jury was influenced by the improper statement of law during deliberations. Finally, the misconduct by the State was particularly egregious. Based on the foregoing factors, the Court found that there was a substantial likelihood that the Prosecutor’s misconduct affected the jury verdict and thus prejudiced Allen.

 2. DOES THE “AGGRAVATOR” SENTENCING ENHANCEMENT APPLY TO AN ACCOMPLICE?

The Court answered “Yes” to this question. Here, the court sentenced Allen to an exceptional sentence based on the sentencing aggravator found in RCW 9.94A.535(3)(v). That statute contains no express triggering language automatically authorizing an exceptional sentence for accomplices. Therefore, Allen’s own misconduct must form the basis upon which the exceptional sentence applies. The operative language of the statute here allows the court to sentence Allen above the standard range if the offense was committed against a law enforcement officer who was performing his or her official duties at the time of the offense, the offender knew that the victim was a law enforcement officer, and the victim’s status as a law enforcement officer is not an element of the offense.” Consequently, an exceptional sentence under RCW 9.94A.535(3)(v) may be imposed on remand if the jury finds the required elements based on Allen’s own misconduct.

3. DID THE SPECTATORS WEARING T-SHIRTS IN THE COURTROOM PREJUDICE ALLEN’S CASE?

The court decided that, based on the limited information in the record, it was unlikely that the t-shirts were inherently prejudicial. The T-shirts bore a message that said, “‘You will not be forgotten, Lakewood Police”‘ followed by a list of the victims’ names. The court said this message does not advocate for a message of guilt or innocence. Rather, the shirts were merely a silent showing of sympathy for the victims. Contrary to Allen’s arguments, the mere presence of words does not make a spectator display inherently prejudicial.

In conclusion, the prosecuting attorney committed prejudicial misconduct by misstating the proper standard upon which the jury could find Allen acted with knowledge. Based on that, the WA Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion?

The shootings were exceptionally tragic. These officers left friends and family in the wake of their senseless death. That said, the Prosecutor in this case clearly committed misconduct. i’ve been in jury trials where Prosecutors will bend and stretch the the law when it comes to whether a defendant had knoweldge they were committing a crime. Similar to the Prosecutor in this case, they’ll say “Well, the defendant should have known they were committing a crime.” This is an ABSOLUTE mistatement of the law. “Knowing” and “Should Have Known” are two very, very different levels of understanding. Here, saying Mr. Allen “Should Have Known” that Clemmons would commit murder implies that Mr. Allen had a legal duty to know what Clemmons was thinking about before committing the heinous murders he committed. That’s wrong, and an improper statement of the law.

 Again, I extend my deepest condolences to the families and friends of the police officers who lost their lives. 

State v. Fedoruk: Ineffective Assistance AND Prosecutorial Misconduct

In State v. Fedoruk, Division II overturned the conviction of a defendant charged with Murder in the Second Degree. The court ruled (1) Mr. Fedoruk received ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney failed to timely pursue a mental health defense and did not object to alleged prosecutorial misconduct; and (2) the prosecutor committed flagrant and ill-intentioned misconduct in closing argument by undermining the presumption of innocence, encouraging the jury to decide the case on grounds other than reasoned evaluation of the evidence, expressing personal opinions as to Fedoruk’ s guilt, and presenting evidence not admitted at trial.

Mr. Fedoruk was charged with Murder in the Second Degree of a relative named Ischenko, whom Fedoruk had accused of raping a family member.

Apparently, Mr. Fedoruk had a long history of serious mental illness. He suffered a head injury in a motorcycle accident at the age of 18, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and was twice admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Doctors have prescribed numerous psychotropic and antipsychotic medications, but Fedoruk had a history of poor compliance with the medication regimens.

During a 2007 competency evaluation, doctors at Western State Hospital diagnosed Fedoruk with bipolar disorder, most recent episode manic, with psychotic features. Fedoruk underwent another mental health evaluation after the State charged him with Robbery, Assault, Theft, and Criminal Trespass in 2008, and a court ultimately found Fedoruk not guilty by reason of insanity.

Despite the above background of mental health issues, Fedoruk’ s defense counsel stated at a pretrial hearing that “the Defense has no intention of putting forward an affirmative defense of diminished capacity or arguing that … Fedoruk was incapable of forming intent at the time.” And although defense counsel later requested a 60-day continuance to pursue an Insanity defense, the trial judge denied the motion and ruled defense counsel failed to lay the foundation for the defense, and that diligence was not shown.

Fedoruk’s case proceeded to trial. At trial, the medical examiner testified that Ischenko died from blunt force trauma, and possibly also strangulation. A crime laboratory analyst testified that the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) profile obtained from bloodstains on Fedoruk’ s clothing matched Ischenko’ s. DNA from numerous bloodstains at the end of the driveway also matched Ischenko’ s profile, as did DNA in blood obtained from under Fedoruk’ s fingernails.

The trial proceeded to Closing Argument. The Prosecutor had a lengthy closing argument on PowerPoint. Among other improper statement, the Prosecutor concluded the presentation by showing a large image of Ischenko’ s body in a ravine under the heading “Murder 2.” On the final PowerPoint slide, under an enlarged ” Murder 2″ heading, the word “GUILTY” flashes, written with all capitals in a 96 -point red font. As these words and images appeared on the screen, the prosecutor delivered the following summation:

Serhiy Ishchenko. He’ s a brother. He was an uncle. He was a father. He was a tidy man, a hard worker and considerate. He was beaten to death, stomped to death, strangled to death. His body was left in a ravine and he was left for dead by the Defendant. Murder two. The Defendant is guilty, guilty, guilty. Thank you.

Fedoruk’s attorney did not object to any portion of the State’ s closing argument, or to the PowerPoint presentation.

First, the Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether Fedoruk received ineffective assistance of counsel. It launched  into an in-depth analysis of State v. A.N.J., which is a recent case regarding ineffective assistance of counsel by defense attorneys. The court reasoned that pursuant to State v. A.N.J., the extensive history of Fedoruk’s mental illness, all of which was available to the defense from the beginning of the case, indicates that the decision to not seek an expert to evaluate Fedoruk until it was too late fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. “With that, Fedoruk was prejudiced by the failure to investigate a mental health defense. Accordingly, Fedoruk received ineffective assistance of counsel, and we reverse his conviction.”

Second, the Court addressed the issue of whether the Prosecutor’s closing argument was improper. To prevail on a prosecutorial misconduct claim, a defendant must show that the Prosecutor’ s conduct was both improper and prejudicial. To establish prejudice, the defendant must show a substantial likelihood that the misconduct affected the jury verdict. Additionally, a Prosecutor who throws the prestige of her public office and the expression of her own belief of guilt into the scales against the accused deprives the defendant of the constitutional right to a fair trial. Finally, a Prosecutor enjoys wide latitude to argue reasonable inferences from the evidence,but must seek convictions based only on probative evidence and sound reason.

The court also reasoned that a prosecutor should not use arguments calculated to inflame the passions or prejudices of the jury. Although a Prosecutor may point out a lack of evidentiary support for the defendant’ s theory of the case or  state that certain testimony is not denied, the general rule is that the State cannot comment on the lack of defense evidence because the defense has no duty to present evidence.

Here, the Court concluded that the Prosecutor’s closing argument was improper. First, the Prosecutor did not couch her assertions of guilt in terms of the evidence in the case, and she reinforced those assertions with inflammatory images. The Prosecutor conveyed to the jury her personal opinion that Fedoruk was guilty. This argument was improper.

Second, the Prosecutor asked the jury to infer guilt from the intuition of other witnesses who testified. Indeed, this served as the theme of her prepared remarks during closing argument. Therefore, this argument was improper. Finally, the prosecutor improperly commented on the lack of defense evidence by arguing that because Fedoruk did not present contrary evidence, Fedoruk agreed with the State’ s position. This, also, was improper. In sum, the court found the Prosecutor’s conduct was improper,  reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Although my heart goes out to the victim’s family, I’m happy with the Court of Appeals decision. Prosecutorial misconduct violates a defendant’s rights to a fair trial. It creates prejudices against the defendant which overwhelm a juror’s clear and rational thinking. And ultimately, it’s unnecessary. If a Prosecutor’s case is strong, then there is no need for misconduct. And the Court of Appeals said it best at the end of the opinion:

In legal doctrines, some distinctions seem cut with a jeweller’ s eye. Others seem more a work of watercolor, with one shade blurred into another. Although the line between zealous advocacy and improper argument may seem drawn in part in watercolor, the conduct at issue here fell outside its blurred zones. The prosecutor’ s actions described above constituted misconduct.

Exactly.

State v. Espey: Prosecutor’s Improper Comments During Trial Reverses Defendant’s Convictions

Good opinion. The Court of Appeals ruled that a Prosecutor’s improper comments during a jury trial required reversal of the defendant’s convictions.

State v. Espey: https://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/D2%2043737-6-II%20Part%20Published%20Opinion.pdf

 

Mr. Espey was charged with Robbery First Degree, Burglary First Degree, Unlawful Possession of a Firearm First Degree, Possession of a Stolen Firearm and Unlawful Possession of a Controlled Substance. He had three separate jury trials. During closing argument at the second trial, the prosecutor argued the jury should consider Espey’s statement to police in light of the time he had spent consulting with attorneys prior to making the statement. The prosecutor said the following:

“Where I suggest you start is, start with his own recorded statement that he gave to the police. Keep in mind that he had been on the run for approximately six weeks. Keep in mind that he had already consulted with two attorneys, Chip Mosley and Gary Clower. He had lots of time to figure out what story he was going to tell the police.

If you have ever dealt with somebody who is a good liar, they have a pattern. What they do is this: admit everything you can’t admit without getting into trouble and only deny the stuff that you have to . . . You heard Tom Espey’s story in there. ‘I’m not guilty of robbery because i personally didn’t take anything. I’m free. Okay, I did everything else, but guess what? You can’t touch me.’ And he is wrong. He is wrong because he doesn’t understand what it means to be an accomplice. He doesn’t understand what accomplice liability means.”

Defense counsel did not object to these highly inflammatory and prejudicial statements. The jury convicted Espey of 3 of the 5 felonies.

In overturning the convictions, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the Prosecutor’s comments were so flagrant and ill-intentioned that no curative instruction could have stopped their prejudicial effect from swaying the jury. Therefore, defense counsel’s failure to object at trial did not waive the issue.

The court further reasoned that a defendant has a right to counsel under the state and federal constitutions under the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and article 1, subsection 22 of the Washington Constitution. Under these laws, several courts have held that a prosecutor violates these rights by using “an accused’s decision to meet with counsel, even shortly after the incident giving rise to a criminal indictment,” to imply guilt or suggest that the defendant hired an attorney to concoct an alibi. No prosecutor may employ language which denigrates the right of a criminal defendant to retain counsel of his choice, or otherwise limits the fundamentaldue process right of an accused to present a vigorous defense.

Finally, the court reasoned that the Prosecutor strikes at the core of the 6th Amendment right to counsel when it seeks to create an inference of guilt out of a defendant’s decision to meet with defense counsel. “That is precisely what the state did here and reversal is required as a result. The State thereby improperly commented on and penalized Espey’ s exercise of the right to counsel, a right guaranteed by the state and federal constitutions.”

The Court of Appeals reversed the convictions.

My opinion? Great decision.

State v. Pinson: When Prosecutors Violate a Defendant’s 5th Amendment Right Against Self-Incrimination

Excellent decision from the WA Court of Appeals held that a Prosecutor violated a defendant’s 5th Amendment rights against self-incrimination by arguing that the defendant was guilty because he chose to not talk to police when arrested.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/D2%2044259-1-II%20Published%20Opinion.pdf

Mason County Sheriff Deputy Nault responded to a reported domestic violence call. He contacted Stacey Campbell, who was in a parking lot across the street from her home. She said the defendant Jarad Pinson, her boyfriend, violently assaulted her. Deputy Nault saw red marks on her neck. Deputy Nault went into the home and arrested Mr. Pinson. During the arrest, Mr. Pinson was cooperative. He said he was drinking with his friends. When asked by officers if the situation became violent with Ms. Campbell, however, Mr. Pinson did not respond. he was arrested for Assault Second Degree Domestic Violence.

At trial, the judge granted the defense attorney’s motion in limine to suppress the Prosecutor from asking whether the fight was physical. However, defense counsel asked that question during cross-examination. Because of this, the judge ruled that Pinson’s defense attorney “opened the door” and gave the Prosecutor opportunity to cross examine the defendant on whether the fight was physical.

In closing argument, the Prosecutor said Mr. Pinson’s silence during arrest was substantive evidence of guilt. Although Ms. Campbell recanted her earlier accusations of assault while testifying on the witness stand, the jury nevertheless returned a guilty verdict on the Assault Second Degree charges. The case went up on appeal.

The law on prosecutorial misconduct is straightforward. To prevail on a claim of prosecutorial misconduct, a defendant must show that “in the context of the records and the circumstances of trial, the prosecutor’s conduct was both improper and prejudicial. However, when the defendant fails to object to the challenged portions of the prosecutor’s argument, he is deemed to have waived any error unless the prosecutor’s conduct was so flagrant and ill intentioned that an instruction could not “cure” the resulting prejudice to the defendant.

The 5th Amendment in the U.S Constitution states, “no person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Similarly, Article I, section 9 of the WA State Constitution follows this language. Both Constitutions guarantee a defendant the right to be free from self-incrimination, including the right silence. A defendant has the right to remain silent both prearrest and postarrest; i.e., both before and after a defendant is given Miranda warnings.

 Here, the Court of Appeals held that the Prosecutor’s statement was improper because in violated Mr. Pinson’s 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. More specifically, it was improper for the State to make closing arguments that infer guilt from the defendant’s silence. Even though defense counsel did not object, his failure to object did not waive the claim of prosecutorial misconduct because the conduct was so flagrant and ill-intentioned that an instruction would not have cured the prejudice.

The case was reversed and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Great decision. It’s a long-standing, basic principle that Prosecutors cannot infer a defendant’s silence as evidence of guilt. I’m pleased the Court acknowledged this basic principle.