State v. Wilson
Prosecutor's Sarcasm Was Improper But Third Trial Was Not Warranted
Constitutional Law | Criminal Law | Evidence | Legal Profession
- Connecticut Supreme Court
- Connecticut Supreme Court
- SC 18631
- Apr 30 2013 (Date Decided)
- Zarella, J.
Although it is manifestly the purpose of cross-examination to expose to the jury facts from which it may gauge the credibility of an expert witness, a prosecutor may not express his own opinion of the witness' credibility, such as by engaging in a line of questioning designed to mock and belittle that witness. Donald Wilson was convicted of murder for the shooting death of Larry Paulk, who confronted drug dealers in his mother's housing complex on Christmas day. The jury in Wilson's first trial could not reach a verdict. Wilson appealed from the judgment of conviction following the second jury trial raising multiple claims. The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment. The defendant claimed, inter alia, that the court violated Wilson's right of confrontation by curtailing the cross-examination of jail house informant, James McGourn, regarding the maximum sentence he faced when he incriminated Wilson. The Supreme Court, assuming constitutional error, arguendo, found the impropriety not harmful. McGourn testified to being offered a two and a half year sentence before meeting Wilson. Defense counsel established that McGourn received a two year sentence and served only one year, for his 13th felony. Wilson also contended that the prosecutor engaged in impropriety by denigrating his forensic expert witness during cross-examination and closing argument, depriving Wilson of his right to a fair trial. Both sides' experts testified regarding the approximate distance of the murder weapon's muzzle from the victim's chest when shot. The state's expert estimated it as between one and four feet. The defense expert, Peter Diaczuk, estimated it at one to three feet, favoring an approximate distance of two feet. The defense was that the victim's brother's testimony placed Wilson in a doorway, too far from the victim under either expert's distance determination. The state conceded excessive and unnecessary use of sarcasm and certain improprieties, including asking whether Diaczuk's work as a doctoral candidate consisted of carrying his mentor's bags. The Supreme Court identified five improprieties including persistent name calling. However, applying the due process analysis of its 1987 decision in State v. Williams, the Court concluded that the improprieties did not affect the trial's outcome. No material dispute existed between the experts regarding the shot's distance and a neighbor's testimony placed the moving victim, fighting with Wilson's cohort, to mere feet from Wilson when shot.