Thursday, March 28, 2019

Murder conviction reversed because of failure to object to prosecutors obviously wrong statements to jury as to the meaning of "beyond a reasonable doubt"

The Georgia Supreme Court has vacated and remanded the murder conviction of two parents accused of the crime based on evidence that their healthy newborn returned to the hospital within hours with fatal injuries.

The defendants appealed arguing ineffective assistance of counsel and the court found that the record did not provide sufficient evident for the court to apply the needed analysis to decide that claim.

More interestingly, the court discussed mistakes by both defense counsel and the prosecutor.  The prosecutor made improper and obviously wrong comments during closing argument about the meaning of "reasonable doubt" but defense counsel did not object.  The prosecutor's statement was as follows:
The Judge will charge you on reasonable doubt. Just keep in mind, and he will charge you, reasonable doubt does not mean beyond all doubt. It does not mean to a mathematical certainty. Which means we don’t have to prove that ninety percent. You don’t have to be ninety percent sure. You don’t have to be eighty percent sure. You don’t have to be fifty-one percent sure. It does not mean to a mathematical certainty.  And it does not mean beyond a shadow of a doubt. That’s just something the TV made up. It’s actually beyond a reasonable doubt. And that would be a doubt to which you can attach a reason. And I submit to you there is no reasonable doubt in this case.
Correctly, the court found both that the prosecutor's statement was wrong, and that there was no reason why a competent defense lawyer would not have objected.  Thus, the conviction could not be trusted:
 We also note our serious concern regarding the State’s closing argument during trial that flatly stated that proof beyond a reasonable doubt in this murder case does not require the jury to be even 51% sure— in other words, requires less than even the preponderance of the evidence required to meet the burden of proof in a civil case. That is obviously wrong. A case like this one, where there was no direct evidence to prove that Albert, Ashley, both of them, or neither of them killed McKenzy, could turn on reasonable doubt, and the verdict could be affected by an argument that 50-50 proof is good enough. And the trial court’s jury instruction on reasonable doubt — which in many cases may cure previous misstatements on the subject — did not cure the State’s obviously wrong argument here. The State’s point was to define reasonable doubt as not requiring the State to prove its case to “a mathematical certainty” – a phrase the State repeated twice. Of course, that is a phrase that occurs in the pattern instruction as well, and so when the trial court gave that instruction, it may well have been understood by the jury not as correcting the State’s error, but as reinforcing it. We cannot conceive of any good reason that a competent criminal defense attorney could have to fail to object to such an egregious misstatement of the law.
The Legal Profession blog has the story here.  You can read the opinion here.

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