Anchorage murder conviction overturned over closing argument
A man’s second-degree murder conviction in a 2012 stabbing death has been overturned on appeal, after judges said a prosecutor in the case falsely assured jurors that any inaccurate verdict they rendered would later be fixed.
The Alaska Court of Appeals issued a Friday ruling overturning 57-year-old Jackie Adams’ conviction in the Jan. 31, 2012 stabbing of Andrew Wilson at the since-demolished Inlet Inn in downtown Anchorage.
According to Friday’s decision, the two men had been drinking when they got into an argument which ended with Adams attacking Wilson. Adams’ counsel claimed self-defense in the case, but a jury took just three hours to convict him; he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
“Among other things, Adams asserts that he is entitled to a new trial because, during the State’s closing argument, the prosecutor openly suggested that if the jurors returned an erroneous verdict, this verdict would be corrected later by the courts,” Friday’s decision read.
The 18-page legal opinion discusses closing arguments made by public defender Daniel Lowery and prosecutor Brittany Dunlop in detail, finding both of them legally flawed.
The three-judge panel said that Lowery had likened jurors’ standard of proof to convict Adams — beyond a reasonable doubt — to “the kind of convincing proof that the jurors would require before deciding to withdraw life support from a loved one.”
“This argument was improper because it suggested that the jurors should decide Adams’s case as if they had a powerful, if not overwhelming, personal interest in the outcome,” the decision read.
Dunlop objected to Lowery’s argument but the trial judge, Larry Card, but he “declined to intervene.”
“Instead, the judge told the prosecutor that he would simply caution the jury to disregard any arguments of counsel that misstated the law. But the judge never indicated, one way or the other, whether he thought that the defense attorney’s argument actually misstated the law,” the decision read.
In a rebuttal to Lowery, Dunlop emphasized the legal remedies available to Adams. The Court of Appeals quoted her as saying:
Your decision is an important one, and I [by] no means mean to trivialize the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s a high burden. But if he wants, Mr. Adams can ask the judge to set aside the verdict. He can appeal it to the Court of Appeals. You know that there’s a Supreme Court after that. It is not a permanent and irrevocable ... decision.
Lowery then objected to Dunlop’s rebuttal, saying Adams’ legal avenues “are not considerations the jury should be thinking about.” Card gave him the same response he gave Dunlop, however, without deciding on the merits of the rebuttal.
Dunlop then restated her position to jurors, without an objection from Lowery:
[Your verdict] is not permanent and irrevocable, the way it is when you decide to kill a loved one. Don’t let that hyperbole skew your decision.
The Court of Appeals acknowledged Friday that the appellate options Dunlop mentioned did exist, but noted that other courts are significantly limited in their ability to address improper verdicts. The court also quoted decisions in appeals from Maryland, Mississippi and Texas overturning cases based on similar statements by prosecutors.
“When the prosecutor addressed the defense attorney’s argument during her rebuttal, the prosecutor did not focus solely on the impropriety of the defense attorney’s analogy (a decision whether to withdraw life support from a loved one),” the decision read. “Instead, the prosecutor also urged the jurors not to view their decision as final — assuring the jurors that, if they made a mistake, the trial judge or an appellate court would fix it later. This argument was almost certain to mislead the jurors regarding the importance and finality of their decision.”
Dunlop, now a deputy district attorney, said in an email that she was awaiting word on whether the state would appeal Friday’s ruling but was ready to retry it if necessary. She said the Court of Appeals has been “scrutinizing closing arguments more closely” in the years since Adams was tried.
“I am obviously troubled by the decision,” Dunlop wrote. “Anytime we have to re-litigate a homicide case after an appeal it can be difficult, but these things are part of our system.”
The state public defender’s office does not discuss cases as a matter of policy.
The Court of Appeals also found issue with instructions given by Card to the jury regarding the use of deadly force during a burglary, which varied from state statute. Its decision requires any new judge trying the case to discard or justify the description of the law he used.
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