Earlier this month, Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest court, overturned the conviction of man who had been found guilty of an assault with intent to murder a police officer. The Boston Herald reports:
A man convicted of pointing a loaded gun at a state trooper won a new trial on Tuesday when the state’s highest court ruled that the prosecutor should not have referred to him and his friends as “street thugs” in his closing argument.
According to the court’s opinion, the prosecutor, who worked for the Norfolk District Attorney’s Office, referred to the defendant as a “street thug” at least five times; it was a motif that the prosecutor laced throughout his closing statement. Furthermore, the prosecutor dismissed the defendant’s “whole defense” as a “sham.”
The prosecutor even went so far as to call the defense attorney a liar. He said, “the lies came from [the defense] table. And I’m not leaving out the attorney either, the questions that were asked and the way they were posed.”
As the Supreme Judicial Court explained:
It is improper for a prosecutor to use insulting names designed to evoke an emotional, rather than a rational, response from jurors…. Similarly, it is improper to refer to a defendant with epithets that suggest he has a criminal record where the evidence does not support such a finding…. It is improper to encourage the jury to find a defendant guilty by virtue of his association with known criminals…. [And] it is improper for an attorney in closing argument to disparage opposing counsel personally, or characterize counsel as “obscuring the truth or intentionally misleading the jury.
According to the Court, the state “wisely” conceded that it had engaged in “excessive argument,” though the state nevertheless argued that this violation did not warrant the overturning of the conviction. The court did believe the conviction should be overturned. It said,
The prosecutor’s improper comments were extensive and provided the structure and thrust of his entire closing argument. Its powerful crescendo culminated in a condemnation of defense counsel as a liar among liars. Stated otherwise, this is not a case in which a fleeting, isolated, improper statement in an otherwise proper argument could, in the context of the entire closing argument, be deemed nonprejudicial…. Here, the tenor of the entire closing argument of the prosecutor improperly disparaged the defendant and counsel, and invited the jury to decide the case irrationally and on general terms. The prosecutor invited the jury to speculate about crimes as yet uncommitted by these three “thugs.”… .The prosecutor’s argument was highly improper, and we cannot say that it did not influence the jury. The defendant is entitled to a new trial.
According to the Boston Herald, the defendant has already completed his sentence. The prosecutor apparently had already retried from the Norfolk District Attorney’s Office. The court’s opinion can be found here.