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Rossiter v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

September 15, 2017

DEVIN M. ROSSITER, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.

         Appeal from the Superior Court, No. 1KE-11-197 CR First Judicial District, Ketchikan, Trevor N. Stephens, Judge.

          Marjorie Mock, under contract with the Public Defender Agency, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          Diane L. Wendlandt, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

          Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, Allard, Judge, and Suddock, Superior Court Judge.[*]

          OPINION

          MANNHEIMER JUDGE.

         Following a jury trial, Devin M. Rossiter was convicted of second-degree murder for stabbing a man. Rossiter was also convicted of tampering with evidence for later cleaning the push-knife he used in this stabbing.

         In this appeal, Rossiter argues that his murder conviction should be reversed because the prosecutor made improper arguments to the jury. For the reasons explained here, we agree that the prosecutor made a number of improper arguments and that the cumulative effect of those arguments undermined the fundamental fairness of Rossiter's trial. We therefore reverse Rossiter's conviction for second-degree murder.

         Underlying facts

         On March 12, 2011, eighteen-year-old Devin Rossiter was in a trailer park in Ketchikan; he was rifling through someone else's car, apparently looking for cigarettes.

         This car belonged to the elderly parents of Nick Stachelrodt. When Stachelrodt saw what Rossiter was doing, he went to the car and pulled Rossiter out. As Stachelrodt pulled Rossiter out of the car and into the driveway, Rossiter began to struggle with Stachelrodt. Rossiter later told the police that he "flipped out" because he was afraid Stachelrodt was going to harm him. During this struggle, Rossiter used a push-knife (a small dagger with a perpendicular grip) to stab Stachelrodt, once in the chest and once in the neck. The stab wound to Stachelrodt's chest severed an artery, and Stachelrodt died at the scene. Rossiter later used mouthwash or alcohol to clean off his knife.

         Based on this incident, Rossiter was indicted for second-degree murder and tampering with evidence. [1] At his trial, Rossiter's attorney argued that Rossiter should be acquitted of second-degree murder because he stabbed Stachelrodt in self-defense, under the fear that Stachelrodt was going to kill or seriously harm him. The defense attorney argued in the alternative that Rossiter was guilty only of manslaughter because he acted in the heat of passion. [2]

         Prior to delivering the State's closing argument, the prosecutor furnished the defense attorney and the trial judge with copies of a PowerPoint presentation (both text and photographs) that the prosecutor intended to show to the jury during his summation. Some of the prosecutor's slides addressed Rossiter's defenses to the murder charge.

         One of these slides read, "Nick Stachelrodt did not deserve to die". The next slide then told the jurors:

The only way you can find the defendant not guilty of Murder in the Second Degree is:
- you disagree [with the preceding slide, and] Nick Stachelrodt deserved what he got (self-defense / heat of passion)

         Rossiter's attorney objected to this slide, arguing that it impermissibly shifted the burden of proof from the State to his client. The trial judge overruled this objection, concluding that the slide did not, on its face, shift the State's burden of proof. The judge told the defense attorney that if the prosecutor actually made a ...


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