Getting a Fair Trial

In June, 2014 the Massachusetts Appeals Court decided the case Commonwealth v. Caswell. The defendant in this case was convicted of murder in the second degree. After his conviction he appealed based on several grounds. One basis for the appeal was the defendant’s contention that the prosecutor made improper statements to the jury during the trial. In his closing argument the prosecutor mentioned the fact that the case had gone before a grand jury and that every witness for the prosecution who appeared “was vetted by that grand jury.”

What’s wrong with this? Simply stated, a prosecutor is never allowed to vouch for the honesty or credibility of a witness. In the Caswell case the Appeals Court stated that by using the “vetting” language the prosecutor invited “the jury to rely on the prestige of the government and its agents rather than the jury’s own evaluation of the evidence.” When a prosecutor vouches for the reliability of a witness he or she undermines the jury’s role as sole finder of fact.

A criminal defendant is entitled to a fair trial as that term has been defined by the courts. Because human beings try cases one cannot expect a perfect trial, but as the dissenting judge in the Caswell case said: “Fair trial means fair, i.e., as close to impeccable as possible.”