The Second Department, reversing defendant’s conviction, determined defendant was deprived of a fair trial by prosecutorial misconduct. Although some of the errors were not preserved, the appeal was considered in the interest of justice:
The charge of criminally negligent homicide arose from an incident in which the defendant, while operating her motor vehicle, struck Evelyn Rodriguez, who had been standing next to the defendant’s vehicle, thereby causing Rodriguez’s death. The remaining charges were related to the defendant’s conduct of removing and damaging certain personal property placed by Rodriguez and her partner, Freddy Cuevas, on the sidewalk outside a residence owned by the defendant’s mother. The items were part of a memorial to Rodriguez’s and Cuevas’s daughter, Kayla, who had been murdered two years earlier and whose body had been discovered on the defendant’s mother’s property. * * *
The prosecutor mischaracterized the evidence relating to the charge of criminally negligent homicide and confused the jury by repeatedly using language to suggest that the defendant’s conduct in striking Rodriguez with the vehicle was intentional or reckless. … [T]he prosecutor used language such as “conscious, blameworthy choices,” “knowingly commit blameworthy acts,” “took a risk that took [Rodriguez’s] life,” “you don’t get to knowingly choose to do something wrong,” “[y]ou don’t get to drive over someone because you feel a mother’s memorial is a nuisance,” and, illogically, “[s]he failed to perceive that risk, and she chose to go ahead anyway” … .
The prosecutor continually denigrated the defense, referring to defense theories, repeatedly, as “excuses,” and also as “garbage,” and he falsely and provocatively claimed that the “defense repeatedly argued that the death of Kayla . . . was an inconvenience and a nuisance” … . The prosecutor continually evoked sympathy for Rodriguez using strong emotional terms, such as referring to her, and to her and Cuevas together, numerous times, as “the grieving mother” and the “grieving parents” and referring to Kayla repeatedly as Rodriguez’s “murdered daughter” or “murdered teenage daughter” … .
… [I]n arguing that the defendant engaged in “blameworthy conduct creating or contributing to a substantial and unjustifiable risk” so as to meet the standard of criminally negligent homicide … , the prosecutor, throughout the course of his summation, referred to conduct not relevant to the driving conduct that formed the basis of the criminally negligent homicide charge. Specifically, the prosecutor encouraged the jury to consider the defendant’s actions in removing the memorial, which he recurrently characterized as “blameworthy,” when determining whether the defendant’s conduct was sufficiently blameworthy to constitute criminally negligent homicide. The prosecutor compounded the prejudicial effect of this error by repeatedly using inflammatory and emotional language, and assuming facts not in evidence, to describe the defendant’s conduct of removing the memorial. People v Drago, 2022 NY Slip Op 04561, Second Dept 7-13-22
Practice Point: Even if the errors are not preserved, prosecutorial misconduct during summation may require reversal. The defendant was charged with criminal negligence, yet in summation the prosecutor kept characterizing her conduct as intentional. In addition, the prosecutor denigrated the defense theories, referred to defendant’s conduct which was not relevant to the charge and assumed facts not in evidence.