Posts tagged with "mistrial"

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.

Where Defense Counsel Invited Error, He Could Not Then Demand a Mistrial

In the previous article “Jury Could Reasonably Infer That Defendant Withheld Fact She Participated in Robbery In Order To Receive State Benefits,” the defendant did not succeed in her claim that the State presented insufficient evidence to convict her of fraudulent receipt of worker’s compensation benefits. In her appeal, she additionally argued that because an officer improperly referenced the defendant’s request for counsel during his testimony, the court should have declared a mistrial but failed to do so.

During cross-examination, defense counsel pressed the officer regarding whether he had taken a statement from the defendant following the robbery, asking variants of the same question. The officer consistently stated he did not take a statement, and upon repeat questioning, clarified that he had not done so because the defendant asked for an attorney. Defense counsel did not object to this testimony, and it was the judge who pointed out, outside the presence of the jury, the potential constitutional issue of referencing the counsel request. At this point, defense counsel made an oral motion for a mistrial, arguing that the statement was improper and nonresponsive. The court denied the motion, finding that the officer’s testimony was “sort of responsive,” and instead instructed the jury to disregard the officer’s testimony about the defendant’s request for counsel.

Declaring a mistrial is an extreme measure granted in very few situations, such as prejudice undermining the right to a fair trial. If the court can implement a curative action to counter the prejudice, oftentimes through a jury instruction, this is the preferred course of action. It is within the trial court’s discretion to grant or deny a motion for a mistrial, and the defendant “bears the burden of establishing that there was irreparable prejudice to the defendant’s case such that it denied him a fair trial.” However, if the error claimed by the defendant resulted from questioning on his part during cross-examination, “[s]o long as the answer is clearly responsive to the question asked, the questioner may not later secure a reversal on the basis of any invited error.”

In this case, the Appellate Court determined that defense counsel invited the error. By repeatedly asking the officer whether he had taken a statement from the defendant, despite consistent negative answers, defense counsel “opened the door for [the officer] to explain why there was no statement.” In addition, the defendant failed to show how she was denied a fair trial. The judge gave a curative instruction to disregard the statement, and “[a]bsent evidence to the contrary, we presume that the jury followed the court’s limiting instruction.” The Court further noted the strength of circumstantial evidence against the defendant. Therefore, this argument on appeal was rejected as well, and the judgment affirmed.

When faced with a charge of larceny, burglary, conspiracy, or attempt, 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.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

Retrial on Charges at Heart of Jury Deadlock Did Not Violate Double Jeopardy

In a criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut rejected a petitioner’s post-conviction claim of double jeopardy, holding that he was subject to a continuing prosecution, not successive prosecutions.

In this case, the petitioner was charged with five counts of risk of injury to a minor child, as well as one count for each of the following: reckless endangerment, criminal possession of a firearm, carrying a pistol without a permit, attempted assault, attempted murder, and possession of narcotics. He was acquitted of attempted murder and convicted of narcotics possession, but the jury deadlocked on the remaining charges. The judge declared a mistrial, and the petitioner was sentenced to five years’ incarceration. The prosecution subsequently charged the petitioner with the same charges on which the jury had hung. Though he was acquitted of attempted assault, he was convicted on the other charges. The petitioner was sentenced to fifteen years’ incarceration, consecutive to his previous sentence, along with eight years’ special probation.

The petitioner engaged in a series of appeals, during which he argued, in part, that the two trials amounted to successive prosecutions in violation of the Fifth Amendment prohibition against double jeopardy. He claimed that controlling precedent “applied to bar the state from prosecuting him in a second trial for the charges on which the jury could not come to a unanimous verdict in the first trial.”

The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, “No person shall… be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb,” a principle referred to as double jeopardy. To determine whether two offenses charged instead constitute a single offense, courts must determine “whether each provision requires proof of a fact which the other does not.” This so-called Blockburger test applies “not only to charges brought in a single prosecution but to charges in successive prosecution cases as well.” However, the U.S. Supreme Court has held, “[A] trial court’s declaration of a mistrial following a hung jury is not an event that terminates the original jeopardy to which [the defendant] was subjected.” As the Court elaborated:

The double-jeopardy provision of the Fifth Amendment… does not mean that every time the defendant is put to trial before a competent tribunal he is entitled to go free if the trial fails to end in a final judgment. Such a rule would create an insuperable obstacle to the administration of justice in many cases in which there is no semblance of the type of oppressive practices at which the double-jeopardy prohibition is aimed.

Richardson v. United States, 468 U.S. 317 (1984). Rather, the Court noted the possible occurrence of unforeseeable circumstances, such as a hung jury, and denying the State the power to retry a defendant under such a scenario would frustrate the protective purpose of our laws.

With these principles in mind, in this case the Appellate Court of Connecticut held that “the state’s retrial of the petitioner on charges that deadlocked the jury” did not violate double jeopardy. As the Court explained, “the declaration of a mistrial due to the jury’s failure to agree on the remaining charges was not an event that terminated jeopardy as to those charges.” Therefore, the judgment was affirmed.

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.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.