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Maine Supreme Court: Defense Counsel Ineffective for Opening Door to Otherwise Inadmissible Evidence of Bad Character

by Matt Clarke

The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine reversed a defendant’s domestic violence conviction after finding her attorney was ineffective for opening the door to prejudicial evidence about her parenting and failing to object to the prosecutor’s improper introduction of evidence about having a child removed from her home.

Meghan M. Pratt wanted to cut her daughter’s hair, but the daughter refused. Pratt picked up scissors and moved toward her daughter. A struggle ensued but ended without injuries. Then Pratt left to run an errand.

When Pratt returned, she told her daughter that she would have to be punished for disobeying her mother. The daughter said, “You aren’t even a mother to us.” Pratt smacked the daughter’s face with her right hand, leaving a bruise that persisted for several days, and then held her daughter with both hands, not releasing her until she had calmed down.

Pratt was charged with domestic violence assault under 17-A M.R.S. § 207-A(1)(A). During opening statements at her jury trial, the State introduced the parental discipline justification as a potential defense. Defense counsel responded in opening statements by introducing the issue of “family dynamics” and the principle that parents are legally justified in using reasonable and moderate forms of punishment against their children.

On the witness stand, the prosecutor asked the daughter where her siblings lived. Pratt objected based on relevance. The prosecutor argued it was relevant to the issue of family dynamics that Pratt raised in opening arguments. The trial court sustained the objection, “noting that the question could indicate to the jury that children may have been removed.”

The daughter was then asked to explain the statement she had made to Pratt before she was struck. She testified that all Pratt “really did was stay in her room the majority of the time” and “didn’t really treat us like we were her kids.”

Pratt objected to the question’s lack of specificity but was overruled, and the prosecutor continued to ask questions about Pratt’s parenting practices, including the fact that she did not spend time with her children, cook for them, or wash her daughter’s laundry.

Pratt objected to the relevance of the line of questioning. The prosecutor argued that it was relevant to the issue of family dynamics introduced by Pratt during opening statements. The trial court overruled the objection, stating “it would allow a little bit of latitude on it.”

The prosecutor asked more questions relating to Pratt’s parenting, “eliciting testimony about an alleged assault of another child [and] Pratt’s failure to play with or eat with her children.” Pratt did not object.

Pratt testified that she slapped her daughter to avoid being assaulted by her. She said she had not consciously intended to slap her daughter, explaining that she had “just reacted” when her daughter came at her because she had been “beat up a lot” in her neighborhood as a child. Pratt testified that she hit the victim in self-defense, not for discipline.

During cross-examination, despite the previously sustained defense objection to questions on the matter, the prosecutor questioned Pratt about removal of her children and again brought up the issue in closing arguments. Neither time did defense counsel object.

Pratt expressly waived the parental discipline justification defense after close of evidence. The jury instructions only addressed self-defense. The jury found Pratt guilty. She was sentenced to 60 days in jail, all of which was suspended, and one year of probation.

On appeal, Pratt argued that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of her parenting. The state Supreme Court could not find clear error but noted that, had Pratt not raised the parental discipline defense in opening statements, it would have been “inadmissible evidence of bad character.” The Court also determined that the prosecutor’s “line of questioning, in violation of the [trial] court’s … ruling about one of Pratt’s children being taken out of the house was plain error.” However, that error was insufficiently prejudicial to justify vacating the conviction in light of the other evidence admitted at trial and the fact that Pratt had placed her parenting at issue.

Pratt filed a timely pro se petition for post-conviction relief (“PCR”). The PCR court appointed her an attorney who filed an amended brief, alleging defense counsel had been ineffective in opening the door to prejudicial evidence about Pratt’s parenting during opening arguments and failing to object to the prosecution’s error.

The PCR court held a hearing during which defense counsel testified, admitting that he had opened the door to admission of parenting evidence but justifying it by saying he was unsure whether her testimony would raise the issue. He also admitted being “absolutely” on notice before the trial that it was a self-defense case and said he did not object to the prosecution’s error because he had already had an objection on the issue sustained and thought additional objections unnecessary. The court denied the PCR.

Aided by attorney Rory A. McNamara of Drake Law in York, Pratt timely appealed and was granted a certificate of probable cause by the Maine Supreme Court.

The Court observed that the Sixth Amendment and article I, section 6 of the Maine Constitution provide that a criminal defendant is entitled to the effective assistance of counsel. It stated that in reviewing a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, it applies the test set forth in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), which requires that the defendant establish that (1) defense counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) there’s a “reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors,” the outcome of the proceedings would have been different.

The standard for measuring counsel’s performance is “reasonableness under prevailing professional norms … [and] counsel’s representation of a defendant falls below the objective standard of reasonableness if it falls below what might be expected from an ordinary fallible attorney.” Watson v. State, 230 A.3d 6 (Me. 2020).

Applying that standard to defense counsel’s inclusion of the parental discipline justification in the opening statement, the Court concluded that doing so unnecessarily opened the door to evidence of Pratt’s parenting practice, which wasn’t reasonable under prevailing professional norms. The Court based its conclusion on the fact defense counsel knew Pratt would be testifying, which counsel expressly told the jury in the opening she would be doing, so there wasn’t a need to raise the parental discipline issue in the opening because it could have been raised during Pratt’s later testimony. Additionally, the Court faulted defense counsel for not performing the due diligence required “to know to a fair degree of certainty how” Pratt would testify, and so, counsel should have known beforehand which defense to raise. Finally, if defense counsel wasn’t sure how Pratt would testify, counsel “was under no obligation to raise the parental discipline justification in his opening statement,” the Court stated. Thus, the Court concluded that defense counsel’s opening the door to prejudicial evidence of Pratt’s parenting during opening statements “fell below the objective standard of reasonableness.”

Turning to Strickland’s second prong, the Court stated that but for defense counsel’s error, the jury would not have heard about Pratt’s parenting practices because that would have constituted inadmissible evidence of bad character. It concluded: “We believe the testimony about Pratt’s parenting practices—which did not make it any more or less probable that Pratt struck the victim or acted in self-defense and served only to establish and highlight Pratt’s bad character—reasonably could have impacted the jury’s verdict and thus is of significant prejudicial effect.” Thus, the Court held that the cumulative effect of defense counsel’s opening the door to Pratt’s parenting practices and his failure to object to the prosecutor’s error results in the reasonable probability that the outcome of the proceeding would have been different but for counsel’s errors.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the judgment of the PCR court and remanded for entry of judgment granting the petition for post-conviction review and vacating the conviction in the underlying criminal judgment. See: Pratt v. State, 303 A.3d 661 (Me. 2023).  

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Pratt v. State

 

 

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