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Seventh Circuit: Prosecutor’s Comments Not Supported by Evidence Denied Defendant Fair Trial, Affirms Habeas Relief

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that a prosecutor’s closing comments about the State’s own witness were so harmful to the defendant that it affirmed the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois’s grant of habeas corpus relief in a murder case.

The case began over 25 years ago after a drive-by shooting in Chicago left a man dead. The case sat unsolved for almost a year. That was until detectives paid a visit to Andrew Jeffers in prison (on an unrelated drug case), and he ostensibly provided them with the identity of the perpetrators. He pointed the finger at Julius Evans as the shooter and Mario Young and Royce Grant as the other men in the car during the drive-by. Jeffers, who originally told the police that he saw the shooting but couldn’t identify who was in the car, now picked the men out of a “six pack” of photos the detective showed him and even agreed to a written statement of how he saw the three men gun down the victim on the sidewalk in front of him while Jeffers was playing a game with someone else. He further claimed that Evans came by later on to apologize to him and the other man for mistakenly thinking they were rival gang members and for shooting at them.

Jeffers then testified before a grand jury that indicted Evans for the murder, telling them the same thing that was in his written statement, which was prepared by the police. When it came time for the jury to hear Jeffers’ story, it was not the same as what he had told police. He said that he did see the shooting, but all the details in his statement were made up by the police. “They added all that stuff on,” he testified. Though he testified that nobody threatened him to change his story, the prosecutor tried to get Jeffers to admit he was visited by an investigator for Mario Young, a known gang member, which put fear in him not to testify about the shooting. This was a major setback for the State because Jeffers was the only evidence they had linking Evans to the murder. All the other evidence collected at the scene could not be tied to Evans.

As the prosecutor began accusing Jeffers of changing his story out of fear of retaliation by Young, defense counsel objected, and the court sustained that objection. Despite the court sustaining the objection, the prosecutor continued unabated, stating: “He can’t remember a damn thing ... what a surprise. What a surprise that Andrew Jeffers after being visited by Mario Young’s investigator would suddenly forget everything that he saw.”

The jury convicted Evans, and he was sentenced to life in prison. On appeal, he argued that the prosecutor’s comments deprived him of a fair trial. But the appellate court disagreed, finding that witness intimidation was reasonably inferred from the record by the prosecutor, so the comments did not deprive him of a fair trial.

Evans filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court, reiterating his claim that the prosecutor’s comments violated his right to a fair trial.

Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, a federal court cannot grant habeas relief unless certain strict criteria can be met. One of those is that the state court unreasonably applied “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” § 2254(d)(1). A state court unreasonably applies clearly established federal all if it “correctly identifies the governing legal rule from Supreme Court case law, but unreasonably applies it to the facts of the case.” Clark v. Lashbrook, 906 F.3d 660 (7th Cir. 2018).

The clearly established federal law upon which Evans based his claim is Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168 (1986), in which the Supreme Court ruled that a prosecutor’s remarks deprive a defendant of a fair trial if they “so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process.” This determination requires a two-step analysis by the habeas court: (1) whether the comments were improper; and (2) if so, whether they “so infected the trial with unfairness” as to deny defendant his due process right to a fair trial. Ellison v. Acevedo, 593 F.3d 625 (7th Cir. 2010) (quoting Darden).

The district court found both prongs were met and granted habeas relief, which prompted an appeal by the State.

The Court began its analysis by noting that it “is well established that a prosecutor may not reference facts not before the jury to bolster a witness’ credibility.” See United States v. Alvair, 573 F.3d 526 (7th Cir. 2009).

Upon a close examination of Jeffers’ trial testimony, the Court noted that Jeffers never actually stated that he met with an investigator who, to his knowledge, worked for Young. The prosecutor tried numerous times to get Jeffers to testify to that effect, but Jeffers repeatedly denied that he knew the investigator worked for Young. Jeffers testified that he did meet with an investigator but stated that he didn’t know who she worked for. The Court observed that “Jeffers explicitly denied having met with an investigator who worked for Young five separate times.” Consequently, the Court determined that the state appellate court’s “determination that Jeffers testified that he met with an investigator who worked for Young … is not supported by the trial evidence.”

Absent any evidence in the record that the investigator worked for Young, the Court stated that it “was not reasonable for the prosecutor to argue Jeffers changed his testimony” due to witness intimidation. The prosecutor’s statements during closing argument were improper, the Court concluded. Thus, the Court ruled that the state appellate court’s “determination to the contrary … reflects an unreasonable application of Darden.”

Having concluded that the prosecutor’s statements were improper, the Court had to determine whether they deprived Evans’ of a fair trial, thereby violating his due process rights. In making that determination, courts look to six factors to guide the inquiry: “(1) whether the prosecutor misstated evidence; (2) whether the remarks implicate specific rights of the accused; (3) whether the defense invited the comments; (4) the trial court’s instruction; (5) the weight of the evidence against the defendant; and (6) the defendant’s opportunity to rebut the improper remarks.” See Darden; see also Howard v. Gramley, 225 F.3d 784 (7th Cir. 2000).

The Court explain that these factors are not rigidly applied and only serve as a “guide to determine whether there was fundamental unfairness that infected the bottom line.” Hough v. Anderson, 272 F.3d 878 (7th Cir. 2001). Basically, the weight of the evidence is the most important consideration, according to the Court. See United States v. Morgan, 113 F.3d 85 (7th Cir. 1997).

Applying the factors to the present case, the Court acknowledged that not all of them favor Evans. However, the most significant factor—weight of the evidence—was not “plentiful and compelling” against Evans. The only evidence linking him to the shooting was Jeffers’ identifications and details, which changed several times. The Court stated that the prosecution’s improper comments made Jeffers’ pre-trial version of events seem more credible to the jury than his trial testimony. Thus, the Court held that they “deprived Evans of his right to a fair trial.”

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s order granting habeas relief to Evans. See: Evans v. Jones, 996 F.3d 766 (7th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal cases

Evans v. Jones

Clark v. Lashbrook

Ellison v. Acevedo

United States v. Alvair

Howard v. Gramley

United States v. Morgan

Darden v. Wainwright

 

 

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