A Victory for the Right to a Fair Trial

Friday, June 10, 2011

In a case (State v. Monday) that drew front-page coverage in today’s Seattle Times, the Washington Supreme Court has issued a strong ruling that racist comments by a prosecutor undermine the fundamental right to a fair trial.

Mr. Monday, a Black man, was convicted of killing one man and shooting two others during a fight in Pioneer Square.  During Monday’s trial, the (white) prosecutor injected racial prejudice into the trial proceedings by claiming that black witnesses are unreliable during closing argument (“black folk don’t testify against black folk”).  The prosecutor also injected racial bias into his cross-examinations of black witnesses that was transcribed by the court reporter (he referred to the police as “po-leeze” to mimic and mock the black witnesses).

Monday appealed claiming that the prosecutor’s appeals to racial bias constituted prosecutorial misconduct which violated Monday’s right to a fair trial.  Some of the appeals were direct (i.e., black folk don’t snitch) and some were subtle but just as insidious (use of “po-leeze”). The ACLU of Washington submitted an amicus brief, arguing that appeals to racial bias by a prosecutor can never constitute harmless error and that an automatic reversal and new trial in these situations is required. To hold otherwise would undermine a person’s right to a fair trial and undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system. In the alternative and if the court applied a harmless error standard, the ACLU argued that the prosecutor’s comments here clearly required reversal because the error was not harmless.

A majority of the WA Supreme Court agreed that the prosecutor’s appeals to racial prejudice so tainted the trial proceedings that Monday’s right to a fair trial was compromised. A five-member majority applied a harmless error standard and reversed his conviction, but did not hold that automatic reversals were required in these situations. In reaching its holding, the Court issued a strongly worded opinion that acknowledged “[w]hen the government resorts to appeals to racial bias to achieve its ends, all of society suffers including the victims.”  Three other members of the Court also concurred that Monday’s conviction should be reversed, but these members agreed with the ACLU’s position that a new trial always should be required when prosecutors inject racial bias into trial proceedings.