Friday, August 31st, 2012

“The Truth” Didn’t Set Him Free

United States v. Williams, No. 11-676-cr (2d Cir. July 16, 2012, amended August 15, 2012) (Sack, Livingston, Lynch, CJJ)

At Malik Williams’ gun trial, the prosecutor, in rebuttal summation, said, “this is not a search for reasonable doubt, this is a search for truth.”  The circuit noted, and indeed the government conceded, that this statement “was improper and should not have been made.” A statement like that “has the potential to distract the jury from the bedrock principles that even if the jury strongly suspects that the government’s version of events is true, it cannot vote to convict unless it finds that the government has actually proved each element of the charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt” and that under the presumption of innocence the jury must acquit even if it cannot “independently find the truth.”   

Nevertheless, this “unwise and erroneous” remark was not plain error.  The remark came at the very end of rebuttal summation, and was largely cured by the jury charge, which had an “extensive discussion of the presumption of innocence and the requirement that the government prove guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” in several places. In addition, “in the context of the entire trial,” Williams was not prejudiced. He did not “receive[] anything other than a fair trial.”

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