Note: San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis is on the board of the California Bar Association, which may help to explain why the bar fails to act in cases where prosecutorial misconduct is found.
Voice of San Diego asks, "Who's 'Pretty Pathetic'?"
A San Diego prosecutor got in the face of a burglary suspect during a trial, suggesting that he's "pretty pathetic" and "pretty despicable." And there was more. "According to a state appeals court in San Diego, the prosecutor also questioned the defense lawyer's integrity, suggested the attorney had coached Higgins, and described a defense psychiatrist as a hired gun who had 'attacked a victim in a rape trial,'" the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
All this sounds more "Law & Order" (or "L.A. Law" for you old school types) than real life. An appeal court is not amused: it's thrown out the guilty verdict and ordered a new trial.
Prosecutor's courtroom snark returns to haunt him
January 19 2011
When burglary defendant Raymond Higgins testified that he had been distraught at the time of the alleged crime because of the death of a close friend, prosecutor Christopher Lawson asked him whether it wasn't "pretty pathetic if you're using the memory of a dead 17-year-old kid as an excuse."
After the judge ruled the question improper, Higgins said he'd also been feeling guilty about not attending the funeral of his sister, who had committed suicide. "You agree that's pretty despicable if you were using that as an excuse," Lawson told him.
According to a state appeals court in San Diego, the prosecutor also questioned the defense lawyer's integrity, suggested the attorney had coached Higgins, and described a defense psychiatrist as a hired gun who had "attacked a victim in a rape trial."
Lawson used his cross-examinations to make speeches and "engaged in a pattern of misconduct that rendered the trial fundamentally unfair," the Fourth District Court of Appeal said in a ruling Thursday that overturned Higgins' conviction and granted him a new trial. He has been serving a five-year prison sentence.
The ruling comes in the wake of a report in October by the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University asserting that prosecutors in the state are seldom punished for unethical courtroom conduct. The project said it found 707 cases from 1997 to 2009 in which courts had found misconduct by prosecutors, but only six prosecutors who were disciplined by the State Bar. The bar, in response, said it would take another look at some of those cases.
Lawson, a deputy district attorney in San Diego County, was unavailable for comment. Steve Walker, a spokesman for the office, said prosecutors were reviewing the ruling.
Higgins, a businessman and Naval Academy graduate with no previous criminal record, was charged with burglary and assault for breaking into a neighbor's house in San Diego with two handguns in May 2008.
The neighbor had asked Higgins to keep an eye on her teenage son, who had gotten in trouble...