Supreme Court Says Prosecutor Went Too Far In Criticizing Defense Strategy
The state's highest court has overturned the conviction of a Bethel man who was sentenced in 2010 to six years behind bars for allegedly molesting an 8-year-old girl.
While it's still unknown whether the defendant, Michael Maguire, will be retried, the case will likely be remembered most for why the court threw out the conviction in the first place—prosecutorial misconduct. The state Supreme Court justices took particular exception to Danbury assistant state's attorney Sharmese Hodge's closing argument.
Specifically, Maguire claimed the prosecutor acted improperly by repeatedly asserting during her rebuttal closing argument that both Maguire and his defense lawyer at the trial, Norman Pattis, were asking the jury to "condone child abuse," that Maguire's testimony was "coached," and that the defense strategy was a game of "smoke and mirrors."
Justice Richard Palmer did not mince words in the court's 28-page unanimous decision.
"We are hard-pressed to imagine any defense argument that properly could be described by the state in the provocative terms that the prosecutor used in the present case," wrote Palmer. "Again, we are perplexed … because a prosecutor never is justified in intentionally mischaracterizing the defense theory of the case or in falsely accusing defense counsel of lying to the victim and the jury, and there is no mistaking the improper purpose of such argument by the prosecutor in the present case and its intended effect on the jury."
Danbury State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky III said Hodge was on trial last week and unavailable to comment. Hodge, in her early 30s, has been practicing law since 2004 and was hired as an assistant state's attorney in 2007.
"We are disappointed with the decision," Sedensky told the Law Tribune. "We believe and argued that the case should've been upheld. We have been in contact with the victim's family and are in the process of determining whether the case will be retried."
Sedensky declined to discuss the prosecutorial impropriety cited by the Supreme Court. Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane said the state would review what went on at the trial "in depth. Certainly it will result in a training bulletin and what additional steps, if any, we will take will depend on a more thorough review."
Kane said his office has a policy in which there is an automatic review whenever a prosecutor is found to have acted inappropriately. He noted that it doesn't take an admonishment from an appellate court to prompt a review. Responses, he said, can range from teaching points in bulletins distributed to all prosecutors or delivered during the annual two-day state's attorneys training session, to counseling of an individual prosecutor, or even discipline.
However, administering discipline is not a quick, easy process, as rank-and-file prosecutors fall under a union contract.