State v. Ordway

619 A.2d 819 (R.I. 1992)



A decision on a motion to pass a case and declare a mistrial lies within the sound discretion of the trial justice. Determination of whether a challenged remark is harmful or prejudicial cannot be decided by any fixed rule of law. Rather, the justice must evaluate its probable effect on the outcome of the case by examining the remark in its factual context. Prejudice clearly inheres if the challenged comments are totally extraneous to the issues in the case and tend to inflame and arouse the passions of the jury against the defendant. Reversible error occurs if the allegedly improper comment is so flagrantly impermissible that even a precautionary instruction would have been insufficient to dispel the prejudice in the jurors' minds and to assure defendant a fair and impartial trial.


Defendant fatally stabbed her husband and contended at trial that she had been a victim of domestic abuse. The prosecutor, on cross-examination, suggested that she had stabbed a previous boyfriend, although no such evidence had been presented. The trial court instructed the jury to disregard the question and denied a mistrial. Defendant appealed the judgment. The state supreme court reversed defendant's manslaughter conviction and remanded.


Did the prejudicial comment made by the prosecutor deprive defendant of a fair trial?




The prosecutor’s prejudicial comment had deprived defendant of a fair trial and the cautionary instruction had been insufficient to cure the error. However, the court found no abuse of discretion in the qualification of a prosecution witness as an expert on the subject of battered women's syndrome. The court found that the trial court correctly instructed the jury regarding the duty to retreat when assaulted.

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