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The Indiana Court of Appeals last week affirmed a man’s attempted rape conviction but also took the unusual step of reprimanding an overzealous prosecutor at the same time. The case arose from Delaware County, Indiana. In his closing arguments at the trial of Santiago Valdez, deputy prosecutor Eric Hoffman made inflammatory statements well beyond the bounds of constitutional conduct. Interestingly, while the court’s direct rebuke of Mr. Hoffman was covered well by “The Indiana Lawyer,” another important aspect of the opinion has been overlooked thus far: the appellate court also agreed that the prosecution consistently misled the jury about the defendant’s mental health history. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire; yet, too often courts and observers isolate misconduct and remove it from its context, as if the “bad character rule” protects misbehaving prosecutors rather than criminally-charged defendants. Although the court here did not explicitly connect the prosecutor’s closing-statement misconduct with the State’s earlier effort to mislead the jury, the puzzle pieces line up such that one can plainly see the how they connect.

Mr. Valdez was arrested in 2012 and charged for attempted rape, criminal confinement, and intimidation. His lawyer pursued an insanity defense, drawing on Mr. Valdez’s history of receiving frequent blows to the head as a boxer. Mr. Valdez himself repeatedly sought to represent himself, but the courts denied his requests, finding him incompetent to do so. At trial, Valdez’s lawyer tried several times to introduce two exhibits to support his insanity claim: a former pre-sentence investigation report containing reports of psychological evaluations done in the late ‘80s, and a police report in which the victim of a previous crime provided evidence suggesting that Valdez was paranoid. The trial court did not allow the defense to put these records in front of the jury.

The appellate court then explained what happened at trial:

The State repeatedly told the jury that Valdez had no history of mental illness or delusional beliefs, and that he began faking these symptoms after he was arrested in the present case. In the State’s opening argument, it told the jury, ‘I believe the evidence will show you [] that there’s no history of mental illness with this Defendant. . . .’ The State developed this theme during the trial [asking two doctors whether they agreed that the only evidence they had seen indicated that Valdez only began having paranoid and delusional beliefs after being arrested in this case.]

In closing argument, Mr. Hoffman also sought to undermine the defense’s key expert witness, implying that defense counsel somehow improperly coached or influenced the doctor. In his words:

This was supposed to be an independent evaluation on the up and up. I’ll just tell you I’ll call it as I see it. But what’s going on here? . . . Then remember that as of Friday he wasn’t sure if he denied having an opinion, like we talked about. Interestingly, he comes into open Court . . . and now he surprisingly has an opinion on insanity. Who’s the only person [Doctor] Horwitz talked to after he hung up the phone with me and said, ‘I didn’t have an opinion’? Mr. Wieneke, the Defense attorney. . . . what changed from Friday to Wednesday? He talked to the Defense.

The trial court did not grant the defense’s immediate request for a mistrial, but it did tell the jury not to consider the prosecutor’s statements as evidence.

On appeal, Mr. Valdez’s attorney argued, among other things, that the two records he sought to introduce should have been admitted and that the prosecutor’s misconduct in closing argument violated the defendant’s due process rights.

With respect to the mental health records, the court agreed with the defense that “the State created a very misleading picture of Valdez’s history of mental illness.” The court acknowledged that Valdez’s records contain psychiatric evaluations indicating that Valdez suffered from major affective disorder and that he was bipolar. Another doctor from that time nearly 30 years ago confirmed the bipolar diagnosis and noted that Valdez had delusions of grandeur and persecution. The court found that the State’s misleading statements would normally have “opened the door” for the admission of “otherwise inadmissible evidence,” but did not in this case because the reports had not been properly authenticated. The lack of authentication thus proved fatal to the claim.

On the misconduct claim, the court dressed down the prosecutor:

Deputy Prosecutor Hoffman hinted that the defense had told Dr. Horwitz to change his testimony, despite there being no evidence in the record on this point. In fact, the parties had discussed the issue earlier in the trial outside the presence of the jury. . . . Not only did Deputy Prosecutor Hoffman not have evidence that the defense coached the witness, he heard explicit testimony denying that this was the case. . . . [W]e find that the prosecutor engaged in misconduct in this case. We agree [that these statements impugned defense counsel’s character]. . . . [T]o insinuate that defense counsel improperly influenced his testimony, particularly where the trial court heard evidence on the issue and the only evidence . . . showed that defense counsel did not do so, was extremely inappropriate. Our adversarial system of justice can only function when based on a certain level of respect and decorum, and will quickly break down if attorneys hurl wild, baseless accusations of misconduct at each other. To engage in such conduct is to enter a race to the bottom, where attorneys who are willing to make such accusations against other attorneys will sound authentic and honest. (Deputy Prosecutor Hoffman made sure to preface his misconduct with, ‘I’ll just tell you I’ll call it as I see it,’ . . . .), while more circumspect and honorable attorneys who are not willing to make such accusations will sound like they are hiding something. We cannot countenance a trial environment in which respectful attorneys have an inherent disadvantage. We admonish Mr. Hoffman to refrain from such conduct in the future.

The court still upheld the conviction, primarily because the trial court had immediately sustained the defense attorney’s objection to the closing argument and told jurors not to consider it evidence.

Notably, the court named the prosecutor responsible for the wrongdoing—a rare thing in judicial opinions as we and others have previously noted. After the opinion came down, Mr. Hoffman, unrepentant, evidently told the media, “I disagree with the court’s interpretation of my comments in final argument.”

The court was right to admonish Hoffman for these acts, but it perhaps did not go far enough in connecting the dots to present a fuller picture of the State’s unethical behavior. Just to recap: the prosecution successfully excluded important records establishing that the defendant had a decades-long history of mental health concerns and then argued throughout the trial that there was no evidence the defendant ever had a mental illness before he was arrested on these 2012 charges. Then, in closing, Hoffman discredited the defense’s insanity expert by implying that the defense improperly influenced him. The goal of that misconduct, like the State’s early shenanigans, was to undercut any claim the defendant had to mental health problems.

Although it never says so explicitly, the appellate court’s opinion contains all of the indications—down to the acknowledgement that the defendant was not competent to represent himself—that Mr. Valdez is an unwell man who received an unfair trial at the hands of an intentionally and systematically dishonest prosecutor. While time will tell whether Hoffman will be sanctioned by the state bar, it is clear from the appellate court record that he acted in a manner worthy of professional discipline.

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