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Closing Arguments: Trial Court Has Authority To Limit Defense Counsel’s Arguments At Closing


appeals convictions trial courts limited defense counsels arguments during summation

People v. Smith

16 NY3d 786

New York Court of Appeals

Decided on: April 20, 2011

 Trial Court Limited Defense Counsel’s Arguments During Summation

Summary: Defendant was convicted after a jury trial in the shooting of her friend. On Appeal, she challenges the preclusion of an argument she wished to make during summation. The Court of Appeals held that the privilege of counsel to comment in summation on any matters of fact pertinent to questions that the jury must decide is not absolute. The Defendant challenged a part of the jury instruction. The instruction was that, if the jury found the victim truthful and accurate in her testimony, then her testimony without any other eyewitness testimony could satisfy the proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court of Appeals held that, where a single sentence in a jury charge is challenged by Defendant, it is not considered a challenge but instead, the instruction must be read as a whole to determine if it was likely to confuse the jury. The trial court properly instructed the jury that, after their careful scrutiny, her testimony alone could be sufficient to convict without any other eyewitness testimony, but the Court of Appeals found that the instruction did not force the jury to conclude that it had to find the defendant guilty if the complaining witness’s testimony was sufficient. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

See Also: Grand Jury’s Discretion: Prosecution’s Claims That Defense  Requested Witness Was Not Relevant Did Not Undermine The Grand Jury’s Discretion 

Issue: Whether the trial court erred when it prevented Defense Counsel from making an argument during summation and whether a charge to the jury that the complaining witness’s testimony without any other eyewitness was sufficient to show proof beyond a reasonable doubt was likely to confuse the jury.

Holding: The Court of Appeals held that the Defendant was precluded from making an argument during summation because the trial court found that it lacked evidentiary support. The privilege of counsel to comment in summation on any matters of fact pertinent to questions that the jury must decide is not absolute. The privilege can never operate as a license to state to a jury, facts not in evidence or to argue theories for which there is absolutely no evidentiary support.

The Court of Appeals held with regard to the specific charge that a single sentence in a jury charge is challenged by Defendant, they do not consider the challenged sentence alone and in a vacuum, but instead, must read the instruction as a whole to determine if it was likely to confuse the jury. No reasonable juror would have concluded that if he or she found the victim’s testimony credible, then he or she had to find Defendant guilty, without assessing whether all of the evidence was sufficient to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Defendant was guilty.

Facts: Defendant was convicted after a jury trial in the shooting of her friend during a dispute. On Appeal, she challenges the preclusion of an argument she wished to make during summation. She argues, that it was the victim of the shooting who first produced the gun that resulted in her being shot. The Court of Appeals held that the privilege of Counsel to comment in summation on any matters of fact pertinent to questions that the jury must decide is not absolute.

Defendant also challenges a part of the jury instruction. The instruction was that, if the jury found the victim truthful and accurate in her testimony, then her testimony without any other eyewitness could satisfy the proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court of Appeals held that they do not consider the challenge sentence alone to accurately convey the principle that a single victims testimony can on its own show proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The court properly instructed the jury that, after their careful scrutiny, her testimony alone could be sufficient to convict without any other eyewitness testimony. In light of the charge as a whole, no reasonable juror would have concluded that if he or she found the victim’s testimony credible, then he or she had to find Defendant guilty; without assessing whether all of the evidence was sufficient to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Defendant was guilty. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Legal Analysis: The Court of Appeals held that under the Sixth Amendment, a Defendant in a criminal Prosecution has the right to have the assistance of counsel for his defense. This right was deemed necessary to ensure the fundamental human rights of life and liberty, and made obligatory on the States by the Fourteenth Amendment. The right to assistance of counsel has been understood to mean that there can be no more restrictions upon the function of counsel in defending a criminal prosecution in agreement with the traditions of the adversary fact-finding process that has been Constitutionalized in the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, Herring v. New York, 422 US 853, 857 1975. Defendants have a full and fair opportunity to participate in the adversary fact-finding process.

The Court of Appeals held that the Defendant was precluded from making a comment during summation. Defendant stated that there was a struggle for the gun before the gun went off. The trial court only allowed counsel to argue on summation that there was struggle over the bag and that the gun went off accidentally. The Court of Appeals found that the privilege of counsel to comment in summation on any matters of fact pertinent to questions that the jury must decide is not absolute. The privilege can never operate as a license to state to a jury, facts not in evidence or to argue theories for which there is absolutely no evidentiary support. On this basis the Court of Appeals affirmed the holdings of the trial court.

The Court of Appeals held that it is the privilege of counsel in addressing a jury to comment upon every pertinent matter of fact bearing upon the questions that the jury has to decide. This privilege is most important to preserve and may not be narrowed by any close construction, but should be interpreted in the largest sense. The right to counsel to address the jury upon the facts is of public as well as private consequence, for its exercise has always proved one of the most effective aids in the ascertainment of truth by its juries in courts of justice, and this concerns the very highest interest of the state.

The Court of Appeals held that a Jury must decide issues on the evidence presented; and counsel, in summing up a case, is permitted to make any summation argument within the four corners of the evidence, Williams, 126 NY at 104. In addition, Counsel must avoid making comments that have no bearing on any legitimate issue in the case.

      Next, Defendant argues that part of the jury charge instructing the jury that if it found the victim truthful and accurate in her testimony, then her testimony without any other eye witness as to what happened inside the car, satisfies the proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court of Appeals held that, where a single sentence in a jury charge is challenged by Defendant, it is not considered a challenge but instead, the instruction must be read as a whole to determine if it was likely to confuse the jury. In this case, the challenged sentence itself does not accurately convey the principle that a single victim’s testimony can on its own prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Court of Appeals concluded and held that the trial court properly advised the jury that after their careful scrutiny, it would satisfy that beyond a reasonable doubt her testimony alone could be sufficient to convict Defendant without another eyewitness testimony. In light of the charge as a whole, no reasonable juror would have concluded that if he or she found the victim’s testimony credible, then he or she had to find Defendant guilty without accessing whether all of the evidence was sufficient to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Defendant was guilty. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


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