Another California Court of Appeals has thrown out a murder conviction because of prosecutorial misconduct in closing argument. We recently wrote about an Oakland murder conviction that the California First District Court of Appeal vacated because Alameda County prosecutor Autrey James argued facts that were not in evidence during his closing and failed to correct the false testimony of key witnesses. Likewise, the Fourth District Court of Appeal recently threw out a hotly contested aiding-and-abetting murder conviction in People v. Hudgins because the prosecutor in the case made what it described as “reprehensible” and prejudicial remarks to the jury about the need for a conviction.
Ian Davis Hudgins was convicted of first-degree murder in 2013 for a 1994 incident in which he allegedly drove two accomplices to a park in Hot Springs where they shot two people, killing one. After exiting the car, the accomplices proceeded on foot to carry out the crimes. When they returned, Hudgins drove them to another location.
Nearly twenty years later at trial, Hudgins’s defense was that he did not know his friends had killed two people while he waited for them outside the park. The state contended that he was knowingly acting as a getaway driver and was a leader of the gang that orchestrated the shootings.
Following deliberations, the jury informed the trial court that they were deadlocked. The judge sent them back to deliberate a second time, at the end of which they reported that they were split 6-6 as to whether to convict and were “hopelessly deadlocked”. The judge brought the jury back the following day and allowed both sides to deliver an additional ten minute closing argument before the jury deliberated a third time.
During that additional argument, the prosecutor, who is unnamed in the appeals court’s decision, essentially told the jury that they should not be responsible for delaying justice for the victim:
“19 years; 600,735 days [sic]; that’s how long the Collins family has waited for justice. We want closure in this case. We want a verdict in this case. We do not want six weeks of time, your time, our time, witness time, to be kicked down the road only to do this all over again. We want a verdict in this case. It’s as simple as that.”
Three times, defense counsel interrupted to raise objections and the judge told the prosecutor to move on, but the prosecution persisted with its line of argument.
Particularly in the context of the jury’s struggle to reach a verdict, the appeals court found the prosecutor’s argument constituted misconduct under state law and was prejudicial for several reasons:
“As we explain, the prosecutor’s argument constituted misconduct under state law. The argument improperly appealed to the jury’s emotions and demanded verdicts from the jury because so much time and effort had been expended in prosecuting the case and because the case would have to be retried, wasting additional time and resources, unless the jury returned guilty verdicts…
The prosecutor’s remark that the Collins family had waited 19 years for justice had nothing to do with the evidence of defendant’s guilt and was squarely aimed at arousing the passion of the jury… The argument was misconduct under California law because it employed a reprehensible method to persuade the jury—an emotional appeal to allow the jurors’ sympathies for the Collins family’s long wait for justice to influence the verdicts.”
The Court of Appeals reversed Hudgins’s conviction and vacated his life-without-parole sentence, adding, “the evidence that defendant aided and abetted Avalos and Sergio in the commission of the crimes was inconclusive, and far short of overwhelming.”
You can read the entire opinion here.