The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Clancy, clarifying what type of rhetoric prosecutors may use during closing arguments. This decision arguably provides prosecutors with more leeway to use prejudicial, inflammatory euphemisms and to categorize the defendant in a negative way during closing.
The Facts of Commonwealth v. Clancy
In Clancy, the defendant was charged with shooting and killing the decedent in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania following a physical altercation. After the physical altercation, the defendant allegedly pulled a gun and fired multiple shots at the decedent. The decedent was hit three times in the back and died. After the shooting, the defendant had a polite conversation with an individual in a convenience store who had nothing to do with the incident. The defendant then fled to Pittsburgh and evaded arrests for a few months. He eventually turned himself in.
Prosecutors charged the defendant with first degree murder and carrying a firearm without a license. At trial, the defense’s strategy was to argue that his actions did not amount to first-degree murder because he “had been moved by passion as a result of the fight with [complainant]." The defendant testified at his trial and stated that “[his] anger took over [him].” He further testified that he neither aimed the gun at the complainant or intended to shoot him. This type of argument, if believed by the jury, could have led to a conviction for third degree murder or some form of manslaughter. Although manslaughter and third degree murder still typically carry significant jail time, that can be a "win" in a murder case because a conviction for first degree murder requires to judge to impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
The Commonwealth presented several witnesses to the fight. Additionally, prosecutors showed a video that partially depicted some of the events at issue. Finally, during closing argument, the prosecutor referred to Defendant as “a dangerous man” and a “cold-blooded killer.” Defense counsel did not object to this characterization.
At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found the defendant guilty of all charges. The judge sentenced the defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as required for a conviction for first-degree murder. The defendant then filed several post-sentence motions, which were denied. He appealed to the Superior Court, and the Superior Court affirmed the conviction on direct appeal.
Following the conclusion of the direct appeal proceedings, the defendant then filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act “PCRA” petition. In his petition, he claimed that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object during closing arguments when the prosecutor referred to the defendant as a “dangerous man” and a “cold-blooded killer.” The petition further alleged that the prosecutor’s statements amounted to an impermissible expression of personal belief and that these statements inflamed the jury. Accordingly, the petition sought a new trial at which the Commonwealth would be barred from making such inflammatory arguments.
In response to the filing of the Petition, the PCRA court conducted an evidentiary hearing. At the hearing, the trial attorney was called to testify. He testified that he did not believe that the prosecutor’s arguments were objectionable and that he thought it was strategic not to object. The PCRA court denied the defendant’s PCRA Petition, and he filed an appeal of the PCRA court's ruling to the Superior Court.
What is Ineffective Assistance of Counsel?
Pennsylvania's Post-Conviction Relief Act allows for a defendant to obtain a new trial if his or her trial attorney was constitutionally ineffective. In order to succeed on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the defendant has to plead and prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the ineffectiveness of his or her trial lawyer “so undermined the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place.” More specifically, a defendant must show that 1) the underlying legal claim was of arguable merit; 2) counsel had no reasonable strategic basis for his action or inaction; and 3) the petitioner was prejudiced—that is, but for counsel’s deficient stewardship, there is a reasonable likelihood the outcome of the proceedings would have been different. If the defendant fails to prove any of these elements, then he or she will not be successful in PCRA litigation.
What May Prosecutors Say During Closing Argument?
A prosecutor has significant leeway in what he or she can say during closing argument, but there are limits. When a prosecutor goes beyond the limits, then a new trial may be granted by the trial court, on appeal, or in PCRA litigation. The most obvious restriction is that a prosecutor may not argue evidence that is not in the record. For example, assuming that a motion to suppress was granted because the police engaged in illegal conduct, the prosecutor could not make reference to the evidence that was suppressed.
However, more relevant for the instant case, a prosecutor is also limited in how they characterize the defendant and the evidence in the case. This is because appellate courts have recognized that the jury may attach special importance to the arguments of the prosecutor by virtue of the office the prosecutor holds. For example, a prosecutor may not state his or her personal belief in the guilt of the defendant. They also may not use many epithets. Here, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court emphasized that a prosecutor may not employ direct or indirect personal assertions of guilt.
What is the “Unavoidable Prejudice Test?”
However, the Court also acknowledged that judges must look at the entire circumstances of the trial before determining whether a prosecutor’s comment(s) should warrant a new trial. This is referred to as the “unavoidable prejudice test.” This test was articulated Commonwealth v. Stoltzfus. The test is:
Where the language of the district attorney is intemperate, uncalled for and improper, a new trial is not necessarily required. The language must be such that its unavoidable effect would be to prejudice the jury, forming in their minds fixed bias and hostility toward the defendant, so that they could not weigh the evidence and render a true verdict. The effect of such remarks depends upon the atmosphere of the trial, and the proper action to be taken is within the discretion of the trial court.
The Stoltzfus court held that there must be a consideration of what happened during the trial before determining whether a prosecutor’s comments are grounds for a new trial. In Stoltzfus, the Court reasoned that because defense counsel had attacked the credibility of the Commonwealth witnesses, it was not reversible error when the prosecutor attacked the credibility of the defendant and his testimony. By contrast, in Commonwealth v. M. Johnson, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the defendant a new trial when the prosecutor, in his closing argument, stated that defendant was guilty by association, because of his relationship with some of the witnesses, even though the record did not support that assertion. Nonetheless, the Court recognized that prior holdings on this issue were not entirely clear and decided to clarify the rule governing what prosecutors may say during closing.
The Court's Ruling
In Clancy, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court clarified what constitutes permissible argument from a prosecutor. To determine whether the statement from the prosecutor is legally sound, the court must evaluate the substance of the challenged remark and its effect upon the jury. This is a two-prong analysis. The substance prong requires the court to examine the challenged remark in the context of the issues presented at trial. In other words, there must be some evidentiary support or an assertion by the defense that justifies the Commonwealth’s statement. If the statement does not have evidentiary support or was not made in response to the defense's arguments or questions, then the court must consider whether the intemperate statement had an impermissible effect on the jury.
Here, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the prosecutor’s statements had a reasonable evidentiary foundation. The defendant shot at the complainant several times and struck him three times in the back. Further, immediately after the shooting he had a “polite” conversation with an unrelated individual and went to a convenience store. Further, because the defense argued that he had acted in the heat of the moment, the prosecutor was allowed to argue that the defendant was “dangerous” and that he acted in “cold-blood” to rebut the defense’s theory of the case. Because the Court held that there was evidentiary support for these statements, it did not consider the effect of these statements on the jury. Accordingly, because these statements were permissible, the trial attorney was not ineffective for failing to object to these statements during the prosecutor’s closing argument, thereby resulting in the denial of the PCRA Petition.
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