Inflammatory Comments by Prosecutor Found Not Sufficiently Prejudicial to Warrant Reversal

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

In a criminal law matter, the Supreme Court of Connecticut ruled that a prosecutor’s statements during closing arguments were improper because they appealed to the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the jurors. However, they did not deprive the defendant of a fair trial; thus, his due process claim was unpersuasive and the motion for impropriety was denied.

Case Background

This case arose from a quadruple homicide that occurred on September 25, 1996. The defendant and a coconspirator planned on robbing a man following a dispute about crack cocaine sales, but instead murdered him in his home. There were three other people at the house, including the man’s teenage daughter, and each was fatally shot to prevent witness identification. Nonetheless, the defendant was linked to the crime and subsequently faced a host of charges, including four counts each of murder and felony murder.

During closing arguments, the prosecutor talked of grieving relatives “clutching” to past memories of their lost loved ones and the victim’s silent voices crying out for justice. The trial started one day after the September 11th attacks, and the prosecutor equated the jury’s civic duty to that of American troops “defending American values abroad.” He played a 911 recording in which the daughter can be heard “gasping for breath, unable to talk” and made explicit references to the biblical story of Cain and Abel.

Defense counsel vehemently objected and moved for a mistrial, but the trial court denied the motion, instead electing to issue curative jury instructions. The defendant was convicted and given a total effective sentence of two hundred sixty (260) years of incarceration. On appeal, he argued in part that these statements improperly played on the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the jury. Therefore, the trial court erred in denying his motion for a mistrial.

Determining Impropriety

In deciding a claim of prosecutorial impropriety, a reviewing court must first determine whether an impropriety even occurred, and if so, whether it deprived a criminal defendant of his or her right to a fair trial. What is crucial is whether the improprieties, as a whole, caused the trial itself to be fundamentally unfair, thus depriving a defendant of the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.

In this case, the Supreme Court determined that the use of the 911 recording was not improper. It was admitted as a full exhibit into evidence, as the defendant did not seek a limiting instruction on its use. “An exhibit offered and received as a full exhibit is in the case for all purposes.” Thus, because the prosecutor used the tape for a proper purpose, even though it “undoubtedly… had a great dramatic effect,” he was within his discretion to do so.

The Court, however, agreed with the defendant that the other comments overstepped the bounds of impropriety. These statements had “nothing to do with the evidence in the case or the defendant’s guilt or innocence.” Rather, they allowed the jury to decide the case “not according to a rational appraisal of the evidence, but on the basis of powerful and irrelevant factors which are likely to skew that appraisal.” It is notable that courts traditionally disapprove the use of religious imagery and references during criminal trials.

The Court’s Ruling

Even though the first prong of this analysis was answered in the affirmative, the Supreme Court determined that due process was not violated. It considered the following six factors, finding that only the first weighed in favor of the defendant:

[T]he extent to which the impropriety was invited by the defendant’s conduct or argument, the severity of the impropriety, the frequency of the impropriety, the centrality of the impropriety to the critical issues in the case, the strength of the curative measures adopted and the strength of the state’s case.

The defendant did nothing to provoke the comments. However, the statements were infrequent in light of the entire closing argument and not “grossly egregious.” The trial court took issue with the fact that the comments had nothing to do with the evidence. Finally, the prosecution’s case was strong, and the instructions telling the jury they had to decide the case on the evidence, not the statements, sympathy, or prejudice. Therefore, the Supreme Court, after addressing additional matters on appeal, affirmed the judgment.

When faced with a charge of a homicide crime, assault, or robbery, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.