In a surprising move, the Delaware Supreme Court announced that it would not agree to rehear a case it decided earlier this month. That case involved a ruling by the court that Davear Whittle’s second-degree murder conviction would be overturned all because a prosecutor in the original trial noted that he felt the state’s witnesses had been “right” while making his closing arguments.
The Delaware Supreme Court issued a three-judge opinion earlier this month in Whittle’s case and found that the prosecutors’ choice of words when describing the state’s witnesses was inappropriate and led to unfair bias. The panel noted that the prosecutor said things like their witnesses had been “correct” or “right” when testifying, something that amounted to improper conduct. The Court ultimately decided that the repeated use of these words resulted in a tainted outcome in the case, something that freed Whittle from his 49-year prison sentence.
Almost immediately after the Court issued its opinion, the Delaware Attorney General’s Office issued its own rebuke, saying that the ruling was unprecedented and that the restrictions placed on what prosecutors are allowed to say had no support in either state law or court opinions. Prosecutors claim that the Supreme Court has never indicated saying things such as “right” or “correct” might be improper, and that issuing such a strong opinion out of the blue is a mistake.
The prosecutor in the case filed a motion for reconsideration, which the Supreme Court quickly denied only a day after it had been submitted. As a result of the denial, the AG says that his office will be retrying Whittle despite their unhappiness with the Supreme Court’s opinion.
Though the issue over seemingly small words may seems surprising, it is not unheard of. In fact, experts say the Delaware Supreme Court has gradually placed more and more restrictions on the words that prosecutors are allowed to utter during criminal proceedings. Several years ago the Court said that prosecutors could not say things like “liar” or use words such as “I” or “we”, arguing that they subtly exert influence over jurors.
Prosecutors complain that all these restrictions can make prosecutors seem distant or bumbling in front of a jury, having to carefully watch every word that comes out of their mouth. Criminal defense attorneys, on the other hand, applaud the recent ruling saying that the outcome shows how important it is for prosecutors to avoid mischaracterizing evidence in front of an impressionable jury. Supporters of the recent decision note that had the prosecutor used the words “right” and “correct” only a few times there may not have been trouble. However, an examination of the transcript revealed that the prosecutor said similar words in describing the witnesses’ testimony 20 times.
Source: “Delaware Supreme Court stands by ‘unprecedented’ ruling,” by Sean O’Sullivan, published at DelawareOnline.com.