Prosecutor’s Summation Deprived the Defendant of a Fair Trial
The Appellate Division, First department overturned the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial in People v Minus, 2015 NY Slip Op 01901 because the Prosecutor’s closing arguments deprived the defendant of a fair trial.
In Minus, a police officer testified that he saw defendant ride a bicycle to a street corner in a drug-prone area, have a quick conversation with another man, and then hand the man a small, unidentified object in exchange for cash. Based upon his training, this officer radioed the rest of his team, and the defendant was apprehended.
The trial court issued a pretrial ruling forbidding the prosecutor from using the testimony about the hand-to-hand exchange for any purpose other than to explain the subsequent actions of the police, specifically noting that this testimony could not be used as a evidence of defendant’s intent to sell the drugs found in his possession. The prosecutor ignored the court’s ruling, and argued during his summation that the jury could consider the exchange and the detective’s view that it was a drug transaction as factors relevant to defendant’s intent to sell.
The jury then convicted the defendant of Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the Third Degree (Possession with intent to sell), and this appeal ensued. During the summation of the prosecutor, the defendant’s lawyer objected, but didn’t specify the grounds, which would ordinarily fail to preserve the argument for appeal, but the Court reached this issue in the interest of justice.
As a note, the prosecution always has the last word in a criminal trial because they have the burden of proof; therefore, there was no way for the defendant’s lawyer to address these improper arguments after the prosecutor made them.
The Court held, “defendant’s counsel prepared the defense and cross-examined the three police witnesses under the assumption that the People would be precluded from using the detective’s testimony about the exchange as evidence of defendant’s intent, the prosecutor’s arguments rendered the trial as a whole unfair. Because of the court’s pretrial ruling, under which the exchange was only relevant to the state of mind of the officers, and not defendant’s intent to sell, counsel had little or no reason to attempt to cast doubt on whether the exchange was actually a drug sale, or whether it evinced an intent to sell the drugs that defendant was charged with possessing.”
The Court further noted that it didn’t approve or disapprove of the actual ruling of the Court, indicating that it wasn’t a proper ruling in the first place, but that, “regardless of the soundness of the ruling, the prejudice here stems from defendant’s detrimental reliance upon it.”
So, because the defendant relied on the trial court’s ruling in crafting a defense, the fact that the trial court modified its ruling after the close of evidence and the District Attorney was able to make the argument that the defendant did defend against made the trial fundamentally unfair. In stating this, the appellate court is indicating that the court should not have limited the prosecution from making the argument in the first place, but since it did and the defendant relied on that ruling, violating the ruling deprived the defendant of a fair trial.
Read the original decision here.
People v Minus