How a Prosecutor’s Misstatement of the Law in Closing Arguments Got One Maryland Man a New Trial

There may be certain things that you may know about criminal trials and criminal law. You may understand what hearsay is and that the prosecution can’t use most kinds of hearsay evidence against you. You may know that the prosecution can’t use irrelevant evidence or (in most situations) force your attorney (or past attorney) to testify against you.

However, giving yourself a truly complete defense goes well beyond that. There are many things that the law says that the state cannot do and, if one or more of those things does happen in your trial, you may be entitled to certain remedies as a result, such as a new trial. To make sure you have that kind of vigorous and complete protection, be sure you have retained an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney.

As noted above, some issues are more subtle and nuanced than, say, a prosecutor’s attempt to admit something that’s obviously irrelevant. For example, take the case of J.R., who was on trial for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. In the case, the marijuana in question had been found inside a backpack that was in the trunk of J.R.’s car.

During her closing argument, the prosecutor told the jury that, under the concept of constructive possession, the law “envisions” that a driver is in possession of, and responsible for, all of the items inside the driver’s vehicle.

Would you know whether this statement was correct or incorrect? Even if you did recognize it as an incorrect explanation of the law, would you know what you could do about it?

The reality is that the law gives both prosecutors and defense attorneys wide latitude when it comes to making their closing arguments. What a prosecutor can’t do, though, is to mislead the jury about what kinds of factual findings they have to make in order to find the accused person guilty of the charged crime.

In J.R.’s case, the most fundamental piece that the state needed, in order to establish that J.R. was guilty, was proof that J.R. was in actual or constructive possession of the drugs. The laws says that, to have possession, a person must have actual or constructive “dominion or control over a thing,” which meant the prosecution needed proof that the defendant “exercised some restraining or directing influence” over the drugs in question.

What J.R.’s prosecutor said didn’t match that. The prosecutor’s statement seemed to say that, if the drugs were inside a car of which J.R. was in possession as a driver, then the law “envisions” the defendant, as the driver, to have possession, regardless of whether the state had proof that J.T. exercised control, restraint or direction over the drugs.

Success requires more than just proof of a prosecutor’s error

So, now you’ve established that the prosecutor misstated the law. So, you’ve won, right? Not yet. To be entitled to a new trial, you have to show that the prosecutor misstated the law and that the error was harmful to you in terms of the outcome of the case. If the state had, for example, multiple pictures of you holding a half-dozen or more gallon-sized zipper bags stuffed full of marijuana, then a guilty verdict on possession probably wouldn’t be overturned, since the state would have overwhelming evidence of your guilt even without the erroneous closing statement.

Most cases aren’t that black-and-white, though, and neither was J.R.’s. Because the state had a “strong, but not overwhelming” case against J.R., the misstatement very clearly could have swayed the jury. So J.R. had both of the elements he needed in his appeal and was able to get the new trial he deserved.

Putting on the strongest possible defense involves many things. It involves obtaining and presenting the evidence that supports your defense. It is about knowing how to question witnesses to get the responses that enhance your arguments, without eliciting answers that will harm you. And it is about knowing what the law says that prosecutors and defenders cannot do, and knowing what to do when the prosecution you faced crossed the line. For that kind of well-rounded and zealous defense, rely upon experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi, who has been effectively representing people charged with drug offenses in Maryland for many years. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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