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Mississippi Supreme Court Upholds Lawyer’s Contempt Sanction for “Improper” Argument

by Mark Wilson

The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld contempt sanctions against a criminal defense attorney, finding that he prejudiced the jury against the judge and prosecutor when he insinuated that they were preventing him from telling the truth.

Adofo Minka represented William Wilson on firearms charges. The trial court interrupted his opening statement when Minka made what the court found to be an objectionable emotional appeal. Afterwards, Minka continued his statement, saying “According to what the prosecution is saying the evidence will show, my client...over there, should already be on the bus to Parchman Penitentiary. Simple enough: right? Wrong.” The court interrupted again and admonished Minka that his soliloquy was an improper comment on the sentence Wilson might receive when the jury would play no role in sentencing.

Once Minka resumed his opening statement, he argued that the case was “about unrestrained and unchecked power.... It is about how power only cares about taking care of itself. It’s about power betraying our trust. During the course of this trial you’re going to hear from men who represent the powerful entities....”

The prosecutor objected and asked for a bench conference. The court declared that Minka’s comments were disrespectful to both the court and prosecutor. After an extensive discussion about the appropriateness of Minka’s comments, oral argument continued. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I wish that I could have a honest conversation with you,” said Minka. “But I can’t. So, I can’t. So, I’m going to take my seat now.”

The trial then proceeded without further incident until closing statements. “I talked to you—I tried to talk to you at the beginning of this case about power,” Minka reminded the jury during closing argument. “I tried to talk to you about the nature of power and how power exercises itself. And our power can sometimes be reckless and abusive.”

The court sustained the prosecution’s objection to Minka’s comments, and Minka continued. “I just want to tell you the truth of this case ladies and gentlemen, but I’m not being allowed to tell you the truth,” he told the jury.

The court interrupted and excused the jury. The judge then granted the prosecution’s motion for a mistrial based on Minka’s “willful efforts to cause that mistrial.” Finding that Minka’s behavior was “in direct violation of the rules of the court,” the judge held Minka in contempt of court. He was ordered to pay a $100 fine and the costs of the jury “in the total amount of $1,350, as his willful and improper behavior, which he refused to correct despite multiple opportunities from the court...to do so, resulted in the abrupt termination of the trial.”

The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed, finding “that Minka intended to insinuate to the jury that both the trial court and the prosecution were preventing him from telling them the truth.” Accordingly, the “record demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that Minka was guilty of direct criminal contempt, and that his contemptuous conduct resulted in a mistrial in the underlying criminal matter.”

The Court also rejected Minka’s argument that he was improperly charged “for twenty-six prospective jurors who never sat on the case, which went to mistrial, improperly increasing the sanction by $650 for the whole venire.” The high court noted that the same type of sanction was recently upheld in Harris v. State, 224 So.3d 76 (Miss. 2017), andCrosby v. State, 760 So.2d 725 (Miss. 2000). Thus, the Court concluded that Minka’s argument was meritless. See: Minka v. Mississippi, No. 2015-CA-01741-SCT (Miss., July 27, 2017). 

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