Court Clarifies Standards of Prosecutorial Misconduct
In a recently published opinion, an Illinois Court of Appeals clarified what types of behavior constitute prosecutorial misconduct in trial settings. In the case, the court held that a prosecutor’s misconduct was cause for the reversal of the lower court’s holding that the defendant was guilty of aggravated sexual assault.
People v. Mpulamasaka involved a sexual encounter between a young woman and a man who were on a date. The woman later claimed that she was raped by the defendant. During closing and rebuttal arguments, the prosecution used a variety of tactics meant to appeal to the jury’s emotions and distract them from the legal issues at hand.
The court noted that while prosecutors are given a significant amount of freedom in how they conduct their closing arguments, the following tactics are always erroneous and improper:
- Arguments used only to inflame the passions of the jury;
- Tactics to confuse the jury on legal issues and to draw attention away from the elements of the crime to irrelevant issues;
- The use of language, such as “predator,” aimed at cultivating anger towards the defendant;
- Misstating or overstating previous testimony from expert witnesses;
- Improperly denigrating an expert;
- Inviting jurors to enter into sympathetic identification with the victim; and
- Accusing defense counsel of attempting to create reasonable doubt by confusion or deception, unless there is evidence of unethical acts.
The court also addressed the prosecution’s decision to sit in the witness stand while arguing about the woman’s courage and then questioning the defendant’s credibility. The court described this tactic as “troubling” and stated that there was no doubt that it was only designed to evoke sympathy for the woman and disdain for the defendant.
The Court’s Holding
While there was no case precedent to establish that arguing from the witness stand was improper, the court stated that such a precedent is not necessary to establish that conduct is inappropriate. According to the court, by sitting in the witness stand and arguing about the woman’s bravery, the prosecutor improperly vouched for the woman, essentially pledging his personal reputation for the credibility of the witness—a tactic that is always improper. While it is permissible for a prosecutor to use body language and rhetoric to persuade a jury, it is the trial judge’s responsibility to ensure that the arguments are not prejudicial.
Based on this behavior, the court was confident in its assessment that but for the prosecutor's improper remarks during closing arguments and rebuttal, the jury’s verdict would have been not guilty. As a result, the lower court's ruling was reversed as to the charge of aggravated sexual assault.
If you were convicted of a crime and have reason to believe that the prosecutor’s actions constituted misconduct, it is essential to retain the services of an experienced defense attorney who can work to have the judgment overturned. Please contact the skilled Naperville criminal defense attorneys at Law Office of Glenn M. Sowa, LLC to schedule your consultation today.