The District of Columbia Court of Appeals issued two opinions Thursday morning reversing felony convictions, finding in one case that a prosecutor argued a motive theory that was unsupported by evidence, and in the other, that police discovered a bag of cocaine on the defendant only after unlawfully detaining him.
In one case, a man accused of trying to shoot his girlfriend's godfather argued that prosecutors presented a motive at trial that they failed to back up. In the other case, a man claimed police had found the drugs after detaining him during a search for a robbery suspect, despite the fact that he didn’t match the description of the suspect, save for the fact that he is a young African American man.
In both cases, the appellate court found that the District of Columbia Superior Court trial judges erred in failing to heed objections by defense attorneys.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, which prosecuted both cases, declined to comment. A representative for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, which represented both appellants, could not immediately be reached.
In the first case (PDF), a local man, Shahid Turner, appealed his 2008 convictions for assault with a deadly weapon and destruction of property. Turner was accused of attempting to shoot his girlfriend’s godfather, Edgar Payton, in August 2007.
In opening statements, the prosecutor told the jury that they would show Payton had tried to interfere with Turner’s relationship, giving Turner motive. In a footnote, the court included an excerpt from the opening statement: “This was payback,” the prosecutor was quoted as saying. “And the defendant was the person there that morning to pay back Edgar Payton and to get him out of the way.”
As the trial came to a close, however, Turner’s attorney argued that the government had failed to introduce any proof to back up that claim. The judge declined a request to instruct the jury not to consider the prosecutor’s opening statements as evidence or that the jury could consider the lack of testimony backing up the motive theory as supporting Turner’s innocence.
The appellate judges sided with Turner. Turner suffered prejudice from the prosecutors’ statements in the opening and rebuttal statements, the court found, and the judge erred in not giving special instructions to “neutralize prejudice reinforced by the repeated emphasis the prosecutor placed on the unsupported arguments.”
Turner’s conviction was reversed and his case was remanded for a new trial.
In the second case (PDF), another local man, Kevin Bennett, entered a conditional guilty plea in 2009 for attempted possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Bennett was detained by police investigating reports of a robbery in August 2008. The victim reported being robbed by “five black males,” and described one as wearing a red shirt or a red and white shirt, and the other as wearing a blue shirt.
Bennett, who was wearing a white shirt, was picked up as police canvassed areas nearby. Police found crack cocaine in one of Bennett’s pockets and charged him with possession. Bennett’s attorney asked the judge to suppress the drug evidence, arguing police had no right to stop Bennett to begin with. The trial judge denied that request, and Bennett pleaded guilty on the condition that he could appeal the suppression issue.
The appeals court found the stop was unlawful and reversed the guilty plea. The police, they wrote, “found appellant—who, other than being a young black male, did not match the description of the suspects—standing still and smoking a cigarette outside of his home, which was a block and a half from the scene of the robbery, at least seven minutes after the crime.”
“Because the police detained appellant for a show-up identification on the sole basis that he was standing next to a person who was reasonably suspected of committing a robbery, his detention, subsequent arrest, and incident search violated the Fourth Amendment,” the judges wrote.
Bennett’s case was sent back for further proceedings.