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The Fundamental Right To A Fair Trial And The Prosecution’s Closing Argument


best appeals convictions The Fundamental Right To A Fair Trial And The Prosecution's Closing ArgumentPeople v. Casanova

2014 NY Slip Op 04978

Appellate Division, Third Department

Decided on July 3, 2014

Closing Remarks Of Prosecution Violated Defendant’s Fundamental Right To A Fair Trial

Summary: Defendant Casanova allegedly sold heroin to a male confidential informant and was arrested by Police. He was indicted on three counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance, and one count each of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third and the seventh degree. At trial, Defendant was found guilty on two counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance and was sentenced as a second felony drug offender to an aggregate prison term of seven years. Defendant appealed arguing that during closing arguments, the Prosecutor made various remarks that were so prejudicial in their cumulative effect they denied him his fundamental right to a fair trial.

            The Appellate Division held that the Prosecutor’s remarks, although not properly objected to by defense counsel, warranted corrective interest of justice jurisdiction. The Appellate Division held that counsel is afforded wide latitude in advocating for his or her case during summation, but there are certain well-defined limits. The Prosecutor repeatedly made remarks that impermissibly shifted the burden of proof from the People to Defendant and strayed beyond those parameters. Accordingly, the Appellate Division reversed and remitted for a new trial.

See Also: The Second Circuit Reviews Sentences On Appeal For Reasonableness Under §3553(a) The 2014 Update: Procedural And Substantive Review.

Issue: Whether remarks made by the Prosecutor during summation were so prejudicial that they denied the Defendant a fair trial and whether or not the Prosecution’s personal opinion vouching for the credibility of a witness, was improper.

Holding: The Appellate Division held that the cumulative effect on the multiple improprieties made by the Prosecutor during summation caused such substantial prejudice to Defendant that he was denied a fair trial. The remarks impermissibly shifted the burden of proof from the People to the Defendant. The Court also held that vouching for the credibility of a witness was improper and instructed the jury to disregard the Prosecution’s personal beliefs.

Facts: Defendant Lazaro Casanova allegedly sold heroin to a male confidential informant during a controlled buy overseen by Police. He was arrested and was charged with three counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree, and one count each of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree and seventh degree. Following a Jury trial, he was found guilty of two counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree and one count of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree. He was sentenced as a second felony drug offender to an aggregate prison term of seven years followed by three years post release supervision.

Defendant appealed, arguing that the Prosecutor made various remarks that were so prejudicial in their cumulative effect, they denied him his fundamental right to a fair trial.

The Appellate Division for the Third Department held that the Prosecutor’s remarks, although not properly objected to by defense counsel, required the Court to exercise interest of justice jurisdiction.

Legal Analysis: The Appellate Division for the Third Department held that the principle question on this appeal is whether various remarks made by the Prosecutor during summation were so prejudicial in their cumulative effect that they operated to deny Defendant his fundamental right to a fair trial. Although Defendant’s challenges to the Prosecutor’s statements were not preserved by appropriate objections, the Third Department exercised its interest of justice jurisdiction to take corrective action.

The Court also held that counsel is afforded wide latitude in advocating for his or her case during summation, but there are certain well-defined limits that may not be exceeded. In this case, the Prosecutor strayed beyond those parameters by repeatedly making remarks that impermissibly shifted the burden of proof from the People to Defendant.

The Prosecutor stated that, in order to find Defendant not guilty, jurors would have to believe that Police were engaged in a scheme whereby they planted evidence on Defendant to frame him. Defense counsel objected that these comments were improper because, although he had argued that the Police work was sloppy, he had made no claims of Police conspiracies, dishonesty or other intentional misconduct.

The Third Department warned Prosecutor that the remarks improperly shifted the burden of proof. When the Prosecutor advised the Jury that it would have to believe that Police misconduct had occurred in order to acquit Defendant, he improperly suggested that more than a reasonable doubt is required. Nevertheless, the Prosecutor’s statements mischaracterized the burden of proof. He advised the Jury that, to have a reasonable doubt, the Jury would have to doubt the reasonableness of everything that it heard during the course of the trial.

The Third Department declared that they are mindful that summations rarely are perfect, and not every improper comment made by the Prosecuting attorney during the course of closing arguments warrants reversal. In reviewing whether misconduct had deprived Defendant of a fair trial, The Court considered its severity and frequency, the corrective action to take, if any, and determine whether the result would likely have been the same in its absence.

The Supreme Court sustained defense counsel’s objections or admonished the Prosecutor sua sponte regarding several comments; many other improper remarks passed without objection or admonishment. The Prosecutor also repeatedly and improperly expressed his personal opinion in an effort to vouch for the credibility of a witness. Given the persistence and magnitude of misconduct the Prosecutor has shown caused such substantial prejudice to Defendant that he was denied a fair trial. Accordingly, The Appellate Division for the Third Department reversed and remitted for a new trial.


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