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3 things to know about the boundaries of closing arguments

August 28, 2013
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Bell Gaerte 3 thingsTrial lawyers often sit silently at counsel table during closing argument. Criminal defense attorneys, in particular, fear they will alienate the jury by objecting during a critical stage of the trial or they fear their objection will highlight prejudicial evidence. Some criminal defense lawyers have simply figured that most comments are permissible anyway and, therefore, there is no real basis for an objection. After all, an appellate court once found no abuse of discretion after a prosecutor read a poem about a cockroach and analogized the cockroach to the defendant Bowles v. State, 737 N.E.2d 1150, 1154 (Ind. 2000).

However, the recent case of Ryan v. State reminded criminal defense lawyers that a prosecutor’s closing argument has firm boundaries. Ryan v. State, No. 49A02-1211-CR-932, 2013 Ind. App. LEXIS 364 (Ind. Ct. App. July 31, 2013). Ryan was on trial for two counts of sexual misconduct with a minor, both Class C felonies. The facts center on a teacher’s alleged inappropriate relationship with his 14-year-old student. During closing argument, the prosecutor suggested that Ryan went to trial solely because he wanted to “get away” with his crime, that the defense attorney’s argument was an attempt to trick the jury, that the jury needed to send a message with their verdict, and that the alleged victim was telling the truth in her testimony. Despite the lack of an objection from trial counsel, the Court of Appeals ruled that the cumulative effect of the prosecutor’s argument rose to the level of fundamental error, reversed Ryan’s convictions and remanded his case for a new trial.

Here are three things a criminal lawyer should know about the limits of a prosecutor’s closing argument:

1. A prosecutor’s comments on the accused’s constitutional rights cross a boundary.

Ryan’s prosecutor argued that “I want to be really clear, we are here because everyone has the right to have a jury trial. We’re not here because he didn’t do it, we’re here because he wants to get away with it.” The appellate court noted that both the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution as well as Article 1, Section 13 of Indiana’s Constitution guarantee a defendant’s right to a jury trial and that this is a “…fundamental linchpin of our system of justice.” Id. at 8; citing Kellems v. State, 849 N.E.2d 1110, 1112 (Ind. 2006). A prosecutor’s comment on that right makes its assertion costly, and also impermissibly implies that only guilty people exercise the jury trial right. Id. at 10. The appellate court found that such comments were not inferences from the evidence, but rather rose to the level of prosecutorial misconduct. Id. at 12.

2. A prosecutor’s request for the jury to send a message crosses a boundary.

In Ryan, the prosecutor argued that “…we keep hearing about this happening, whether it’s a teacher, or a coach, or a pastor, whoever. And we all want to be really angry and post online and have strong opinions about it. And we never think that we’ll be the ones that are here that get to stop it. And you actually do get to stop it … you are in an incredible position to stop it and to send the message that we’re not going to allow people to do this.”

The appellate court was careful to explain that a prosecutor could permissibly argue that “justice was served in this particular case.” Id. at 16. However, given Ryan’s prosecutor’s emphasis that the jury shouldn’t allow “people” to do this, the exhortation could be read to find Ryan guilty in order to stop others from committing sexual misconduct. Id. at 17. As a result, the comments were deemed improper and constituted misconduct.

3. You need to find a way to say “objection” during closing argument.

This lesson is an obvious one, but a reminder never hurts. Because Ryan failed to object to the prosecutor’s arguments, he was only able to prevail on appeal by utilizing the fundamental error doctrine. Fundamental error is “an extremely narrow exception” and a reversal on the grounds of fundamental error is rare. In order to preserve error for appellate review, a defendant usually must request the jury be admonished and if the admonishment is insufficient, move for a mistrial. Id. at 7-8.

In most instances, closing argument is the last time the jury hears from the attorneys prior to deliberations. And, of course, the prosecutor gets the last word. Ryan demonstrates that a defense lawyer can’t simply let improper arguments go to the jury. If counsel is uncomfortable objecting in front of the jury, he or she should consider approaching the bench during closing argument and making a record before the judge. Regardless of the attorney’s trial strategy, the attorney must find a way to preserve the record.•

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James J. Bell and K. Michael Gaerte are attorneys with Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP. They assist lawyers and judges with professional liability and legal ethics issues. They also practice in criminal defense and are regular speakers on criminal defense and ethics topics. They can be reached via email at jbell@bgdlegal.com or mgaerte@bgdlegal.com. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.
 

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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