Thursday, November 13, 2014

People v. Murillo (Cal. Ct. App. - Nov. 13, 2014)

The prosecution calls a witness at a criminal trial, but the witness refuses to answer any questions, saying at the very outset "I've got nothing to say."  What we do with the witness is another issue; he doesn't have a privilege claim, so we may well be holding him in contempt.  But it's likely he'd prefer that to getting shanked -- or worse -- for testifying.

Okay.  Since the witness clearly isn't going to testify, we presumably just move on to the next witness, right?

Not here.  No, instead, the trial court let's the prosecutor ask over a hundred leading questions to the nonresponsive witness.  Essentially testifying on his behalf.  Things like:  "[D]o you recall circling number four [Murillo] and putting your initials, the date, and the time on that document?; [D]o you recall writing a statement that says, 'Number four [Murillo] looks like him, but not completely sure. Kind of the same face structure'?"

Defense counsel objects like crazy, but the trial judge is totally fine with everything.  Let's the jury hear all of the witness' purported testimony from the prosecutor's mouth.  Admittedly telling the jury at the end that the prosecutor's questions "aren't evidence".  But nonetheless letting the prosecutor get all the "facts" he wants in front of the jury.

The Court of Appeal is not impressed.  It reverses.

Usually we assume that the jury followed a judge's instructions.  But in situations like this, when there's such manifestly inappropriate conduct, I agree that it makes total sense to reverse and remand for a trial in which the jury decides the case based upon the actual evidence, not the non-evidence out of the mouth of the prosecutor.