Can the prosecutor call someone a liar?

Jodi Arias Prosecutor.jpg

Unless you have been on a 5 year vacation, you could probably pick Jodi Arias out of a lineup. You have heard Nancy Grace talk about Jodi Arias so much that you probably change the channel, which means I should definitely take the time to write about her here, right?

The point of this blog is not to comment on Jodi Arias or Travis Alexander or the death penalty or how capital punishment is used in Arizona, but to highlight a portion of the trial that most jurors cannot wait for attorneys to get to: closing arguments.

Today I had a person call the office to ask a “legal question”: “Can the prosecutor call someone a liar in closing arguments?” Now, we all know this really could have been answered by Google, but I briefly and politely answered her question.

While the author of this blog is never comfortable with name-calling at any portion of any trial, the short answer is “yes.” When a witness takes the stand in any trial, the credibility of that witness is always at issue. In this case, Jodi Arias waived her right against self-incrimination and took the witness stand in her own defense. By testifying on her own behalf, Jodi Arias opened herself up (pun intended) to be cross-examined by the prosecutor. Since she had given various accounts of what actually happened, the prosecutors attempted to impeach her with her own statements. Jodi Arias told police and investigators (and even the jury) at least three (3) different versions of what happened. By definition, one or more of those versions were not truthful.

There are subject areas and comments that attorneys are not allowed to mention during closing argument. The Mississippi Supreme Court has widely rejected impermissible arguments during closing: “Although it is the duty of the district attorney to prosecute a case with diligence, he or she should guard against doing or saying anything which would prejudice the minds of the jurors or tend to cause them to decide a case on something other than the evidence.” McCaskill v. State, 227 So. 2d 847 (Miss. 1969).

In other words, attorneys are not allowed to make arguments that are merely to inflame the passions and prejudices of the jurors. Take a look at these few examples:

“A prosecutor’s comment regarding the prospect of allowing a 13-year-old defendant charged with murder to go free in a jurors’ neighborhood was impermissible. The prosecutor was not arguing a statement of fact that was in evidence or that was relevant to an issue before jury, but was improperly attempting to frighten the jury.” Dancer v. State, 721 So. 2d 583 (Miss. 1998).

“A prosecutor’s repeated, improper comments encouraging the jury to “send a message” to the community and to “do something about the crime in this county” were not harmless error in a prosecution for aggravated assault and shooting into a dwelling house. The prosecutor violated the rules five times and, in the process, attempted to mislead the trial judge as to the prevailing law on the propriety of such argument, and the evidence of guilt was not overwhelming.” Brown v. State, 986 So. 2d 270 (Miss. 2008).

In closing (another intended pun), attorneys should stick to the evidence (or lack thereof) and argument that can be made based on that evidence. Personal opinions of attorneys are not allowed. Attorneys can lead the horse to the water, but they simply should not force the horse’s head into the water to force the horse to drink.

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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