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

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

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 fundamental due 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.

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