September 24, 2017

Colorado Court of Appeals: Multiple Errors from Prosecutorial Overreach Did Not Influence Outcome of Trial

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Howard-Walker on Thursday, June 15, 2017.

Batson Challenges—Peremptory Strikes—Jurors—Testimony—Expert Opinion—Lay Witness—Prosecutorial Misconduct—Jury Instructions—Cumulative Error Doctrine.

Defendant was charged with first degree burglary and conspiracy to commit first degree burglary. Among other evidence presented, his girlfriend and Detective Garcia testified at his trial. He was convicted as charged and sentenced.

On appeal, defendant contended that the trial court erred when it denied his challenges, under Batson v. Kentucky, to the prosecutor’s peremptory strikes excusing three prospective jurors—one who identified himself as African-American and two who identified themselves as Hispanic—asserting that the prosecutor’s “race-neutral” reasons for removing the jurors were not worthy of belief. One challenged juror was disinterested, the second juror had a negative experience with law enforcement and a belief that police officers sometimes misidentify suspects, and the third juror had previously faced criminal charges from the same district attorney’s office and had a negative view of law enforcement. Therefore, the trial court’s Batson findings are supported by the record.

Defendant next argued that the admission of several portions of Garcia’s testimony constituted reversible error: (1) Garcia was not admitted as an expert witness, but gave opinions regarding whether the gun depicted in the video surveillance was real. Although this was improper, it did not constitute plain error. (2) Garcia testified about the manner in which the gun was being used. Any error in admitting this testimony was harmless. (3) It was not error for Garcia to identify defendant. No specialized knowledge is necessary to recognize an individual in a video and this evidence was probative of a material fact. (4) Garcia testified regarding probable cause, which was not relevant; however, this was not plain error. (5) Garcia testified but had no personal information about the reasons why defendant’s girlfriend was crying during the police interview. This testimony was not obviously improper and did not undermine the fairness of the trial. (6) Garcia opined about defendant’s statement regarding another perpetrator. Even if this was improper, it did not undermine the fundamental fairness of the trial. (7) Garcia opined about the truthfulness of defendant’s statements to police. Though this testimony was improper, it does not rise to the level of plain error because there was other sufficient evidence to support his conviction.

Defendant next asserted that the prosecutor engaged in reversible misconduct. Although the prosecutor stepped over the line when he repeatedly suggested that the girlfriend was committing perjury, the prosecutor did not threaten or coerce her, and any misconduct was not reversible. The prosecutor also commented on the girlfriend’s truthfulness. The evidence supported a reasonable inference that her testimony was false, and thus these comments were proper. Finally, although the court did not condone the prosecutor’s comment on defendant’s decision not to testify, the comment did not amount to plain error.

Defendant further argued that the trial court erred when it failed to instruct the jury on the predicate crime of theft and when it failed to define the word “intent.” While the jury instructions were deficient, (1) the record demonstrates that the specification of the underlying crime was not a controverted element of the burglary offense; therefore, the court’s failure to instruct the jury on theft was not plain error, and (2) under the circumstances of this case, the court’s failure to define the culpable mental state similarly did not constitute plain error.

Finally, defendant argued that the cumulative effect of the trial court’s errors and prosecutorial misconduct violated his right to a fair trial. The errors were relatively small events occurring over a two-day trial during which substantial evidence was presented. Defendant received a fair trial in spite of the identified errors.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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