A Prosecutor’s Change of Heart in a Capital Case at the Supreme Court of the United States
In a criminal case in which there were no issues of guilt in the trial, the prosecution was proceeding under an improper argument of law that the defense could not disprove. The prosecution argued, incorrectly, that defendant’s constitutional right to a jury trial and to trial by an impartial trier of fact had been violated. The Court found no reasonable possibility that the jury would not have convicted defendant had the arguments not been made by the prosecution. The Court held that the Constitution does not demand such a result and a prosecutor, in the exercise of his or her discretion, may argue the law or facts, even though such argument was improper.
The prosecution had argued, over repeated objections by defendant, that the Court should read the record of the trial and find that it did not contain evidence of the necessary elements of the offense, specifically, that the evidence of defendant’s guilt showed he had knowingly given a false name to an airline employee. It was not a defense attorney’s burden to show that the jury would have found defendant guilty, but only to show there was a reasonable possibility that they would have done so. It was the defense attorney’s burden to disprove the prosecution’s argument.
The prosecution argued that the jury had found facts that showed defendant had committed the offense, i.e., the evidence showed defendant had knowingly given a false name. The prosecution’s theory was that, by finding defendant guilty, the jury necessarily found defendant had given a false name and the prosecution was arguing only that there was a reasonable possibility the jury would have found him guilty if they had not been “misled” by the testimony of the airline employee. Defense counsel made extensive objections to the prosecution’s argument. For example, defense counsel objected to the prosecution’s argument that the jury necessarily found defendant guilty by finding he knew he was giving a false name to the employee, and to the prosecution’s argument that the jury found facts