Fair Trial Despite Prosecutor’s Improper Closing Statements
A prosecutor’s improper appeal to the emotions of the jury regarding the sexual assault of a teenager did not deprive the Defendant, a Roman Catholic seminarian, of a fair trial. Leonardo Montoya was a Roman Catholic seminarian in Columbia who came to the U.S. to continue his religious studies. He became friendly with 16 year old T’s family. Montoya attended a party for T’s father. After dinner, T went upstairs while the adults remained downstairs drinking Columbian liquor. Around 1 a.m. Montoya entered T’s room and woke her pulling at her sheets and telling her she had pretty eyes.
T yelled at Montoya who smelled of alcohol and pushed him out the door. She awoke at about 5:45 a.m. and noticed Montoya was asleep in the other bed in the room. She went back to sleep. She later awoke and saw a man standing over her bed. She thought it was her father and pulled the covers over her again. She felt the comforter move and a tingling sensation on her thigh. She felt her vagina being rubbed from behind. T realized that Montoya was touching her. She ran to her father and stepmother’s room yelling about it. T’s father ordered Montoya out of the house. T became suicidal, was hospitalized and was still taking antidepressants at trial. She had no prior history of such episodes. Montoya was convicted following a jury trial of sexual asault in the fourth degree. The Appellate Court affirmed. Sufficient evidence supported the conviction. The state met its burden of establishing that T was sexually assaulted.
Montoya’s claim was rejected that because T did not actually see him touching her, the state failed to prove that he was the perpetrator. The jury was free to draw the reasonable inference from the evidence, in light of the Defendant’s earlier conduct toward T, that it was he who had sexually assaulted her. The prosecutor improperly appealed to the emotions of the jury during closing argument regarding the victim losing trust, happiness, innocence, peace and “all to this man”. Even though the prosecutor’s statements were grounded in the evidence, her language invoked overly sympathetic images of the victim. However, the Defendant was not deprived of his right to a fair trial. Defense counsel did not object to the remarks when made, the comments were not central to a critical issue and the court’s general instructions minimized harm.