Monday, November 25, 2013

Conviction reversed - but no sanctions imposed - for prosecutor's improper comments

The Legal Ethics Forum recently posted a link to a story in the Connecticut Law Tribune about a decision of the state's supreme court overturning a conviction because of a prosecutor's improper comments.  Specifically, the prosecutor claimed the prosecutor acted improperly by repeatedly asserting during her  closing argument that both the defendant and his lawyer were asking the jury to "condone child abuse," that the defendant's testimony was "coached," and that the defense strategy was a game of "smoke and mirrors."

The court's opinion is available here.  The court's analysis on the question of the improper comments starts on page 11.

This is an interesting question.  I am not too bothered by the "smoke and mirrors" comment.  Even though it is clear that a prosecutor is not allowed to express his or her opinion on the credibility of a witnesses, I think this comment is within the acceptable limits of rhetoric.  It is just a way to say that the defendant's evidence is weak and that the juror's should not be confused by it. 

The comment on "coached" testimony is a closer call because it does come close to being an opinion on the credibility of the witness and suggests unethical conduct of the defense attorney.  It does sound like the prosecutor is saying "I believe the witness was not telling the truth."  However, I am not sure the comment was quite that clear.  Obviously "coached" is a term that has negative connotations but it seems to me it is just a comment on the demeanor of the witness and the general credibility of the testimony.  If that was all there was, I am not sure I would have overturned the conviction.

The first comment (the one about condoning child abuse), though, is of a different nature.  First of all, although it sounds like a statement of fact, it also was really a statement of opinion, and that opinion was questionable.  Second, it was probably not based on the evidence.  Third, it was used to stir emotions,  And, lastly, it was a cheap shot at the defendant's lawyer.

Based on this one comment, I agree the conviction should have been reversed. The court's analysis is very good.  The only thing I would add is that I think the court should have imposed sanctions on the prosecutor.