The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday reversed a defendant’s conviction for beating up his wife after the prosecutor made improper statements during closing arguments. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Alphonse.
The defendant was charged with assault and battery and intimidation of a witness following an altercation with his wife. In May of 2012, the defendant’s wife arrived home with their two children (ages four and six) and nephew in the middle of the night. The defendant and the wife immediately began to argue. The wife carried the four-year-old child inside while the other children went to their respective rooms. At that point, the defendant allegedly poked the wife in the forehead and swore at her. The wife began taunting the defendant, asking if he wanted to hit her, and the defendant said he was going to leave. However, according to the wife, the defendant followed her to her bedroom and punched her in the face as she was holding their four-year-old child. The wife then put the child down, and hit the defendant with a broom. There was then a scuffle over the cell phone, which the defendant took before leaving the house.
The defendant testified at trial that he began arguing with his wife when she returned to their home with the children. When he tried to leave the house, the wife hit him with a broom. As he was leaving, the defendant took the wife’s cell phone and the wife slapped him in the face.
The defendant elected to have a jury trial in Brockton District Court. Before the trial, the judge issued a sequestration order for the witnesses, which means the witnesses had to wait outside of the courtroom if they were not testifying and they were not permitted to discuss their testimony with any other witnesses while the case was still pending. This is a common order in criminal jury trials because the parties do not want witnesses to tailor their testimony based on what other witnesses might have seen or heard inside the courtroom.
During closing arguments, the prosecutor was trying to convince the jury that the defendant had a motive to lie because he was facing criminal liability. However, the prosecutor then went too far, reminding the jury that the defendant was permitted to stay in the courtroom and listen to all of the other witnesses’ testimony while the other witnesses were banished to the hallway. The prosecutor suggested that the defendant had an unfair advantage in that he was allowed to sit through the entire trial and craft his testimony around the testimony of all of the other witnesses.
After the defendant was convicted, he appealed and the Appeals Court reversed his conviction based on the prosecutor’s inappropriate closing argument. The Court pointed out that every criminal defendant has a state and federal constitutional right to confront the witnesses against him and hear the government’s evidence. Therefore, the prosecutor was essentially suggesting that the defendant received an unfair tactical advantage by exercising his constitutional right to attend his own trial. The case was remanded back to Brockton District Court for a new trial.
This case illustrates the importance of making a clear record of all of the government’s errors at trial to allow the Appeals Court to consider whether to allow a conviction to stand. The defendant’s trial attorney did a good job in this case making sure the prosecutor’s improper closing argument was objected to and preserved for appellate review.