Law School Case Brief
United States v. Young - 470 U.S. 1, 105 S. Ct. 1038 (1985)
Inappropriate prosecutorial comments, standing alone, would not justify a reviewing court to reverse a criminal conviction obtained in an otherwise fair proceeding. Instead, the remarks must be examined within the context of the trial to determine whether the prosecutor's behavior amounted to prejudicial error. In other words, the court must consider the probable effect the prosecutor's response would have on the jury's ability to judge the evidence fairly. In this context, defense counsel's conduct, as well as the nature of the prosecutor's response, is relevant.
Billy G. Young was charged with various federal offenses involving a scheme to defraud a refinery by submitting false certifications that oil purchased by the refinery from Young’s company, Compton Petroleum Corporation, was crude oil when in fact it was less valuable fuel oil. At the trial in district court, defense counsel in his closing argument impugned the prosecutor's integrity and charged that the prosecutor did not believe in the Government's case. No objection to defense counsel's summation was made at the time, but in rebuttal arguments the prosecutor stated his opinion that respondent was guilty and urged the jury to "do its job"; defense counsel made no objection. Young was convicted on several counts, and on appeal alleged that he was unfairly prejudiced by the prosecutor's response to defense counsel's argument. The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded for a new trial, holding that under case law of that circuit, such remarks constituted misconduct and were plain error, and that appellate review was not precluded by defense counsel's failure to object at trial.
Was Young entitled to a reversal of his conviction because of the inflammatory remarks made by the prosecutor during closing argument?
The United States Supreme Court held that the prosecutor's remarks were clearly improper and unethical. However, the Court held that the prosecutor's response to defense counsel's misconduct did not rise to the level of plain error such that a reversal was warranted. The Court noted that the plain error doctrine of Fed. R. Crim. P. 52(b) was to be used sparingly and only in the event of a particularly egregious error in which a miscarriage of justice would otherwise result. An examination of the record as a whole revealed that this was not an error that entitled Young to a reversal of his conviction.
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