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Judges order new trial based on prosecutor’s comments

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Comments made by a prosecutor during a Harrison County man’s trial for charges stemming from a break-in at a convenience store improperly suggested that the man chose not to testify so he would not incriminate himself, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled.

In Patrick Nichols v. State of Indiana, 31A01-1112-CR-599, the state charged Patrick Nichols with Class C felony burglary, Class D felony theft and Class A misdemeanor criminal mischief, believing he broke into the Wilson General Store and gas station in Elizabeth and stole cigarettes and an air conditioner unit. Store owner Emmett Wilson and a police officer went to the store after the burglar alarm went off around 3 a.m. on April 14, 2011. No one was found in the store, but items were missing and in disarray.

According to court records, Nichols made several calls from inside the store between 6 and 7 a.m., including to his mother and ex-girlfriend. He told his ex-girlfriend that he was at a gas station in Elizabeth and needed picked up, but she did not get him. A passerby saw a PT Cruiser in the alley near the store and saw some of the metal siding from the store was pried off. The passerby wrote down the license plate number, which was only one “alpha character” different than the license plate number of Nichols’ mother, who also had a PT Cruiser.

The prosecution acknowledged that its evidence against Nichols was “not a lot.” The prosecutor went on to say, “I usually don’t comment on a person’s [F]ifth [A]mendment right …” and told a story about another case in which the evidence was extremely thin but the defendant was convicted because he chose to testify and, in testifying, provided the jury with evidence of his guilt.

Nichols did not object to the prosecutor’s comments and was convicted of the three charges.

The Court of Appeals decided the prosecutor’s comments rose to the level of fundamental error. The jury could have reasonably inferred that the prosecutor was suggesting that Nichols didn’t testify so as to avoid self-incrimination, Judge Terry Crone wrote.

“In fact, we think it is obvious that the prosecutor was suggesting that the jury draw an inference of guilt from Nichols’s decision not to testify. Given the obviousness of the prosecutor’s comments and the fact that the evidence of guilt was not overwhelming in this case, we conclude that the comments placed Nichols in a position of grave peril and constituted clearly blatant violations of basic and elementary principles of due process that presented an undeniable and substantial potential for harm,” he wrote.

The judges ordered the trial court conduct a new trial.

 

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