June 2, 2009
Imputed Conflict Does Not Result In Reversal Of Murder Conviction
The Idaho Supreme Court affirmed the first degree murder conviction of a defendant on charges that he had poisoned his wife. The defendant had claimed that his counsel labored under a prohibited imputed conflict of interest because a fellow public defender had represented the deceased wife's mother in a related matter. The court here agreed that there was a conflict that would have required the personal disqualification of the other lawyer. However, the trial court had adequately inquired into the conflict and approved a screen between the two lawyers. The court concluded that there are unique considerations that apply to public defender offices that militate against a per se disqualification rule. Rather, the focus is on confidentiality and loyalty. Further, it did not matter that Idaho Rule of Professional Conduct 1.10 does not provide for screening as a cure for imputed concurrent conflicts.
A dissent would find error and grant a new trial based on a finding of pervasive prosecutorial misconduct in closing argument. According to the dissent, the prosecutor had improperly appealed to the passions, emotions and prejudices of the jury and used the wife's family as a means to convict the defendant. Further,
I find that the repeated references to the [defendant's] affair constitute fundamental error. There is a subtle difference in producing evidence of [the defendant's] affair at trial and referring to that affair as [his] "screwing some 21-year-old...tramp." I agree with the majority that these statements are inflammatory and improper. The prosecutor attempted to paint a picture for the jury of [the defendant] running around womanizing while his wife laid dying at home wallowing in self-pity over her recent weight gain. These tactics do not serve any purpose other than to gain a conviction through improper means.
The dissent views the court's application of harmless error to pervasive prosecutorial misconduct to be a virtual license for prosecutors to blatantly violate the rights of the accused to a fair trial. (Mike Frisch)
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>>> “However, even when prosecutorial misconduct has resulted in fundamental error, the conviction will not be reversed when that error is harmless.” State v. Field, 144 Idaho 559, 571, 165 P.3d 273, 285 (2007). <<<
I was under the impression that fundmental error precluded harmless error analysis.
The dissent is very pursuasive. By comparison, the majority appears to be determined to uphold the conviction no matter what the cost. Especially, the majority's consideration of what is fundmental error appears to be completely conclusory. For example, without more, this is a meaningless statement: "Because the statements did not result in an unfair trial or deprive Severson of due process, they were not fundamental error." Not surprisingly, using this logic, the Court was able to conclude that none of the statements were fundimental error and that therefore all could be dismissed as harmless error. Apparently, it was harmless error because he was guilty and consequently should have been convicted anyway.
Please remind me never to murder my wife in in Idaho -- or be falsely accused of it I should say.
Posted by: FixedWing | Jun 2, 2009 8:22:26 PM