On claims of prosecutorial misconduct, California state law standards differ from those under the U.S. Constitution. Under the U.S. Constitution, a prosecutor commits reversible misconduct only if the conduct infects the trial with such unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process. By contrast, state law requires reversal when a prosecutor uses deceptive or reprehensible methods to persuade either the court or the jury and it is reasonably probable that a result more favorable to the defendant would have been reached without the misconduct. To preserve a misconduct claim for review on appeal, a defendant must make a timely objection and ask the trial court to admonish the jury to disregard the prosecutor's improper remarks or conduct, unless an admonition would not have cured the harm.
A jury of the Santa Clara County Superior Court, California, found defendant guilty of the first degree murder of a 12-year-old girl. At defendant's penalty trial, the jury returned a verdict of death. The trial court's pretrial ruling excluded evidence of defendant's prior crimes and during a Napa police officer's testimony concerning the prior assault against Marjorie Mitchell the prosecution elicited a reference to the investigation of a theft of firearms from an animal shelter break-in and asked the officer if he had questioned defendant about it. Out of the jury's presence, defendant objected to this evidence, the prosecutor apologized, and the trial court warned the prosecutor not to elicit further evidence on this subject. The trial court denied defendant's motion for a new trial, as well as his automatic motion for modification of the death verdict, and sentenced defendant to death. On appeal, judgment was affirmed.
Was prosecutorial misconduct attendant during trial?
Defendant did not request an admonition or request that the officer's testimony be stricken, and he did not later object to witnesses who not only spontaneously mentioned the incident but also directly inculpated defendant in the animal shelter break-in. Defendant also did not object when evidence of his conviction in the animal shelter break-in was admitted into evidence. Thus, defendant forfeited any objection based on the prejudicial effect of the testimony at issue. Moreover, even assuming that defendant did not forfeit this claim, the first reference to the animal shelter break-in did not inculpate defendant and, at worst, only vaguely connected the incident to defendant. This was not a deceptive or misleading tactic and did not constitute prosecutorial misconduct.