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Adams v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

March 1, 2019

JACKIE RUSSELL ADAMS, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.

          Appeal from the Superior Court Trial Court No. 3AN-12-1048 CR, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Larry D. Card, Judge.

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

          Tamara E. deLucia, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards (initial brief) and Jahna Lindemuth (supplemental brief), Attorneys General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

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

          OPINION

          MANNHEIMER, JUDGE

         Jackie Russell Adams appeals his conviction for second-degree murder.[1] Among other things, Adams asserts that he is entitled to a new trial because, during the State's closing argument, the prosecutor openly suggested that if the jurors returned an erroneous verdict, this verdict would be corrected later by the courts.

         We agree with Adams that the prosecutor's argument was improper, and we further conclude that this improper argument requires reversal of Adams's conviction.

         Background facts

         Adams was convicted of second-degree murder for stabbing and killing Andrew Wilson at the Inlet Inn in Anchorage in January of 2012.

         On the evening in question, both men had been among the people drinking in Adams's hotel room. After Wilson spit onto the carpet, Adams physically escorted Wilson out of the room and locked the door (leaving Wilson in the hallway). From the hallway, Wilson kicked the door twice. Adams opened the door and came out of the room, into the hallway, where he and Wilson tussled.

         Eventually, the two men stopped fighting, and Adams returned to his room. But a little later, Wilson kicked the door again. This time, when Adams opened the door, there was another scuffle. At the end of this scuffle, Adams re-entered the room holding a steak knife, and he declared that he had stabbed Wilson. Wilson was in fact stabbed in the stomach, and he later died from this wound.

         At trial, Adams's attorney conceded that Adams stabbed Wilson, but the defense attorney contended that Wilson had been drunk and violent, and that Adams had stabbed Wilson in self-defense, or in defense of the other people in the room, or in defense of the premises against a violent intruder.

         The jury rejected these defenses and found Adams guilty of second-degree murder.

         Facts relating to the prosecutor's improper argument to the jury

         At the close of Adams's trial, during the defense closing argument, Adams's attorney discussed the jury instruction defining the concept of "reasonable doubt." This instruction (Alaska Criminal Pattern Jury Instruction 1.06) stated in pertinent part:

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt must be proof of such a convincing character that, after consideration, you would be willing to rely and act upon it without hesitation in your own important affairs.

         During his summation, Adams's attorney urged the jurors to equate the concept of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" with the kind of convincing proof that the jurors would require before deciding to withdraw life support from a loved one:

Defense Attorney: [Proof beyond a reasonable doubt requires you to have] the same degree of confidence that you would have to have in... another important affair in your life, and to act without hesitation in that important affair.
Important affairs in your life, ladies and gentlemen. What would those be? ... Well, important affairs presumably would be ... the same types of stakes that we're dealing with here: things where you have to make a decision that cannot be changed.
Permanent, irreversible decisions. ... That's the type of decision you're about to make in this case. ... There's only one really good example I can think of, frankly. ...
[Objection by the prosecutor; the trial judge declines to intervene]
[Defense Attorney continues] Important affairs in your life. Potentially, ladies and gentlemen, one example of that might be terminating life support for a loved one. ... It's a decision, an extremely important decision, that you may have to make at some point in your life. Maybe some of you have already had to make that decision; I don't know. But it's an important affair in your life. It's permanent; it's irreversible. That's analogous to the decision that you are being asked to make in this case.

         As noted in this excerpt from the trial transcript, when the prosecutor objected to the defense attorney's argument, the trial judge declined to intervene. Instead, the judge told the prosecutor that he would simply caution the jury to disregard any arguments of counsel that misstated the law. But the judge never indicated, one way or the other, whether he thought that the defense attorney's argument actually misstated the law.

         Having received this response from the trial judge, the prosecutor addressed this issue in her rebuttal summation. She told the jurors that the defense attorney's analogy was wrong:

Prosecutor. [The defense attorney] talked repeatedly about this term "permanent and irrevocable", and [argued to you that] ... you should equate [your decision in this case] to your life's [decisions] that are permanent and irrevocable. I would disagree. I think everybody in this room knows that there's a number of procedures after this court hearing happens.
Your decision is an important one, and I [by] no means mean to trivialize the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It's a high burden. But if he wants, Mr. Adams can ask the judge to set aside the verdict. He can appeal it to the Court of Appeals. You know that there's a Supreme Court after that. It is not a permanent and irrevocable ... decision.

         At this point, Adams's attorney objected. He argued that the various ways in which the trial result might later be judicially altered "are not considerations the jury should be thinking about." In response, the judge cautioned the jurors to disregard any arguments of counsel that misstated the law. But, just as in the preceding bench conference, the judge gave the jurors no indication as to whether he thought that the prosecutor had, in fact, misstated the law.

         Having received this response from the trial judge, the prosecutor then restated her point (without further objection):

Prosecutor. [Your verdict] is not permanent and irrevocable, the way it is when you decide to kill a loved one. Don't let that hyperbole skew your decision.

         Following deliberations, the jury found Adams guilty of second-degree murder.

         Why we conclude that both the prosecutor's and the defense attorney's arguments were improper

         The concept of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" is difficult, if not impossible, to define with precision. At the time of Adams's trial, Alaska Criminal Pattern Jury Instruction 1.06 defined "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" as evidence which, upon consideration, is so convincing that a person would be willing to act upon it, without hesitation, in their own important affairs. We recently criticized this formulation in Roberts v. State, 394 P.3d 639, 644 (Alaska App. 2017).[2]

         Here, when Adams's defense attorney delivered his summation to the jury, he urged the jurors to equate the concept of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" with the kind of convincing proof that the jurors would require before deciding to withdraw life support from a loved one.

         This argument was improper because it suggested that the jurors should decide Adams's case as if they had a powerful, if not overwhelming, personal interest in the outcome. The defense attorney told the jurors that they should not be satisfied with the State's evidence unless it was so convincing that they would be willing to act on it, without hesitation, when making a decision that was fraught with emotion and which would have irrevocable and irremediable consequences for one or more people whom they loved.

         When the prosecutor objected to the defense attorney's argument, it would have been better if the trial judge had told the jurors that the defense attorney's argument was improper for these reasons, and if the judge had reminded the jurors that they had been selected precisely because they were capable of being disinterested judges of Adams's case - capable of deciding Adams's guilt or innocence without having their decision ...


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