Friday, December 5, 2014
Prosecutor’s Misuse of “Reasonable Doubt’ Diagram Requires New Trial, Supreme Court Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A prosecutor’s use of a diagram of the state of California in a ham-fisted effort to explain to jurors what reasonable doubt is, in conjunction with an argument that may have misled jurors into holding the prosecution to a reduced burden of proof, requires reversal of a child-molestation conviction, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
“Courts have repeatedly cautioned prosecutors against using diagrams or visual aids to elucidate the concept of proof beyond a reasonable doubt…yet these arguments persist,” Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for a unanimous court. Rejecting contentions that defense counsel might have had legitimate tactical reasons for not objecting to the use of the diagram, and that the prosecutor’s conduct was harmless, the court ordered a new trial for Jonis Centeno.
Centeno was sentenced to five years in prison by San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Cara Huston after jurors found him guilty of two counts of committing lewd acts on a child under 14 years of age, and a misdemeanor of annoying or molesting a child under 18. All three counts involved a girl identified as Jane Doe, who was 10 years old at the time of trial.
Jane Doe lived with her father and brother in a living space within a converted garage; Centeno lived in the adjoining space. Sheriff’s deputies arrested Centeno after the girl’s father claimed to have seen Centeno laying on top of her in his bed.
Centeno claimed he and Jane were innocently playing with a ball, and that he lost his balance and rolled onto her just as her father was entering the room. In a subsequent interview, Jane said Centeno had improperly touched her on four occasions, but at trial, she denied that anything illicit occurred and said it was “not true” that she told deputies Centeno had acted improperly.
But in response to a series of leading questions by the prosecutor, she said the defendant had laid on top of her twice, exposing his penis on the first occasion. The second occasion, she said, was when her father walked in.
The transcript, Corrigan noted, revealed that there were at least 75 questions, on both direct and cross, that she did not answer.
In closing argument, the prosecutor presented a diagram of California and explained:
“Say you have one witness that comes in and this witness says, hey, I have been to that state, and right next to this state there is a great place where you can go gamble, and have fun, and lose your money. The second witness comes in and says, I have been to this state as well, and there is this great town, it is kind of like on the water, it has got cable cars, a beautiful bridge, and it is called Fran-something, but it is a great little town. You have another witness that comes in and says, I have been to that state, I went to Los Angeles, I went to Hollywood, I saw the Hollywood sign, I saw the Walk of Fame, I put my hands in Clark Gable’s handprints in the cement. You have a fourth witness who comes in and says, I have been to that state.”
While the witnesses didn’t mention San Bernardino, or another witness may have erroneously stated that San Diego is in the north of the state, she went on to explain, there was no reasonable doubt that the state was California.
Corrigan was unimpressed.
“Here, the prosecutor began with the outline of California. She did not posit that the outline had been established by any evidence; it was simply presented as a given. The essential question, ‘[W]hat state is this?,’ began with an important factor presumed: that the outline was, indeed, the depiction of a state. In these two respects, the hypothetical invited the jury to jump to a conclusion before the prosecutor recounted any other hypothesized ‘evidence.’…The prosecutor did go on to mention other ‘evidence,’ and urged the jury to ‘look at the entire picture.’ However, the most important part of her hypothetical, the visual aid showing the shape of California, was not supported by evidence admitted during the imaginary trial and was also irrefutable.”
What made the situation worse, she said, was that the prosecutor then told jurors that Centeno was “good for” the crimes because it was “reasonable” to believe he had committed them, and not reasonable to believe that the child was confused and repeating what adults had told her to say. In doing so, Corrigan wrote, the prosecutor “confounded the concept of rejecting unreasonable inferences, with the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The case is People v. Centeno, 14 S.O.S. 5491.
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