Violation of Fifth Amendment Rights Causes Defendant’s Conviction to be Overturned

Criminal trials involve loads of evidence, legal argument, expert testimony, and sometimes days of witness testimony. But in many cases, it is a single improper statement that can end up poisoning a trial. When prosecutors use creative language that impinges on a defendant’s constitutional rights, a conviction can be overturned, as it was in a recent case.

Statement by Prosecutor at Issue

The case involves a man accused of setting fire to his girlfriend’s house. He was captured on video camera, and the police, upon arriving at his home, smelled gasoline. He was arrested, where he gave a written confession, admitting that he had in fact burned down the home.

At trial, during the opening statements, the prosecutor told the jury that they would hear the defendant himself state, in his own words, that he had committed the crime.

In the middle of the trial, the defendant’s attorney asked for a mistrial, on the basis that the defendant’s fifth amendment right to be free from self-incrimination had been violated by the prosecutor’s opening statement. When a defendant does not testify after the jury hears that he will, it could create an adverse impression in their minds. A jury is not allowed to be told or infer anything negative from a defendant’s decision to invoke his fifth amendment rights and not testify.

The prosecutor stated that all she said to the jury was that the defendant had signed a confession, which he had.

The judge denied the motion, and the case went to the jury. The prosecutor did get into evidence the written confession, and the defendant never testified. The defendant again objected, stating that the prosecutor’s words implied the defendant was going to testify, and if the impression was made to the jury that the defendant was going to take the stand and testify, it was a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights.

Appellate Court Reverses the Conviction

The jury convicted the defendant and an appeal ensued. The question became how the jury interpreted the prosecutor’s phrase that the defendant “will tell you.” The State again argued that the prosecutor was referring to the confession, not making a statement that the defendant would be testifying at trial, but the appellate court noted that it was not important what the prosecutor meant or intended. All that matters is how what was said is likely to be interpreted by a jury.

Here, the court felt that a jury of laypeople could easily interpret the prosecutor’s statements as referring to testimony at trial. Even though the error may have been in using the wrong tense (“will testify” vs. “has testified”), it is still an error, and one that convinces a jury that the defendant will testify, thus violating his fifth amendment rights.

A defendant in that situation then must choose between testifying or not testifying and risking the jury inferring something negative by his not testifying. This kind of “Hobson’s Choice” is not allowed in the context of protecting a defendant’s constitutional rights.

In-depth understanding of the constitution’s protections can win a trial and prevent important rights from being ignored. The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.