WHAT HAPPENS IF THE PROSECUTOR MAKES IMPROPER COMMENTS OR ENGAGES IN MISCONDUCT AT TRIAL?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
State v. Magdaleno, 17 P.3d 974 (Kan. Ct. App. 2001).
This case answers the question:
Can a new trial be granted for prosecutorial misconduct?
This case discusses whether improper remarks by the prosecutor during closing argument is grounds for a new trial. When a prosecutor’s statement transcends the limits of fair discussion of the evidence and the trial judge fails to instruct the jury to disregard the remark after the defense counsel objects, a new trial is required to assure the constitutional right to a fair trial.
Magdaleno appealed his convictions of one count of rape and two counts of aggravated indecent liberties with a child. In his appeal, Magdaleno argued that: (1) his right to cross-examine key prosecution witnesses was unconstitutionally limited; (2) the district court’s refusal to admit evidence of the gang affiliation of the alleged victim and her friend to show bias was improper; and (3) the prosecutor’s improper remarks during closing argument deprived him of a fair trial.
The admission or exclusion of evidence rests within the sound discretion of the trial judge. On the issue of limitation of cross-examination, justical discretion is abused only when no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the district court. In this case, the defendant argues that his attempt to demonstrate that the plaintiff had a motive to lie about the charges against him was severely damaged by the exclusion of evidence and limitations on cross-examination of key prosecution witnesses. Due to the limitations on cross-examination, the defendant claims he was not given a chance to fairly attack the plaintiff’s credibility. The court disagreed with this argument, and held that defendant was given fair opportunity to present this theory of motive. Thus, the court ruled that there was no abuse of discretion on this issue.
In Kansas, evidence of gang membership is admissible if relevant or demonstrates witness bias. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that evidence of gang membership is relevant because it allows the jury the opportunity to decide whether that evidence affects the truth and accuracy of the testimony of a witness. In this case, the court ruled that this evidence should have been included because it led to demonstrating a stronger connection between the plaintiff and one of the witnesses. While the defense was able to establish the two had a friendship, evidence that they were members of the same gang would have had a substantially larger effect on the jury. For this reason, the court held that the exclusion of this evidence was an abuse of discretion.
When a prosecutor’s statement transcends the limits of fair discussion of the evidence and the trial judge fails to instruct the jury to disregard the remark after the defense counsel objects, a new trial is required to assure the constitutional right to a fair trial. In order to determine whether improper remarks by the prosecutor during closing argument constitute harmless error, the reviewing court must be able to find that the error had little, if any, likelihood of changing the result of the trial. In this case, the Court of Appeals of Kansas had to look at the conduct of the prosecutor during closing arguments and the actions that the trial judge took to determine if Magdaleno was entitled to a new case.
During closing arguments, the prosecutor stated, “I’ll tell you what’s more scary, what’s scary is that an attorney can come up here and argue facts that she knows isn’t true.” The defense objected to this statement as a personal attack. Rather than instructing the jury to disregard the comment, the trial court instructed the prosecutor to be more specific as to what she was talking about. This gave the prosecutor a second chance to attack the credibility of the defense attorney. The prosecutor again called the defense attorney a liar. The defense objected, and the district court instructed the prosecutor to rephrase the comment, but failed to instruct the jury to disregard the statements. The district court had made attempts to stop the prosecutorial misconduct, but it was evident that these attempts failed. When these attempts failed, it was the duty of the district court to instruct the jury to disregard the statements, but the district court failed to do so.
In this case, the comments made by the prosecutor were made in ill will, and they constituted gross and flagrant misconduct. However, because the comments were limited in number, prosecutorial misconduct alone might not have warranted a reversal. In the past, the Kansas Supreme Court has established the cumulative error rule, meaning that cumulative errors of a trial may be so great as to require reversal of a conviction when considered together. In State v. Magdaleno, the prosecutorial misconduct during closing arguments were not found harmless in combination with the trial court’s abuse of discretion in failing to admit evidence of gang affiliation of the plaintiff. Therefore, the conviction was reversed.