In a recent appeal, Jerry Crew prevailed when the Fifth District Court of Appeals of Florida tossed his murder conviction and remanded his case back to the trial court for numerous inappropriate comments made by the prosecutor against the defendant and his defense attorneys during closing arguments.  Further, the court agreed with the appeal that the defendant’s robbery charge was improper and should have been reduced to theft with special instructions.

Crew routinely bought drugs from one person.  At the time of the murder, Crew was living in a motel room.  After his drug dealer sold him drugs, he pressured the defendant to allow two of his friends to use the room to confront a rival dealer.  The defendant declined, but when given 3 crack cocaine rocks he agreed.  Crew hid in the shower while the argument took place.  Crew’s dealer stole drugs from the rival dealer.  One man was shot dead in the parking lot after the confrontation.

Crew was arrested on second-degree felony murder charges.  A person who participates in the commission of a felony that results in the death of someone can be charged in connection with that death despite intent or other factors.

“This case reads like a primer on what not to do during closing arguments,” the concurring judge in Crew v. Florida wrote,  “The errors committed by the prosecutor are so numerous and so egregious, and the comments directed at opposing counsel are so unprofessional, I am amazed it was allowed to occur unchecked.”

Prosecutor Ryan Will’s made the following statements to the jury, including character attacks:

  • He “clearly and continuously” misrepresented the evidence to the jury by saying without support that the defendant “would share in the proceeds” of the robbery that resulted in the killing.
  • The prosecution “abandon[ed] any semblance of professionalism” when he dehumanized and ridiculed the defendant with personal attacks, including calling him “our favorite crackhead”, saying he had a “crackhead little brain”, and describing him as having “beady little crackhead eyes [that were] glowing in that shower.”
  • He made repeated “denigrating” and “sarcastic” remarks against the opposing counsel, using their first name only, and mocking them for having a “poor, misunderstood client” and disparaging the defense’s theory of the case.
  • The prosecutor also urged the jury to consider “improper grounds” for conviction by invoking the victim’s family and telling jurors that they shouldn’t “spit in this family’s face.”
  • He also said “It’s like Christmas come early for a crackhead.”

The Open File, a website that chronicles prosecutorial misconduct cases around the country, criticized the media’s coverage of the case saying that they trivialized the egregious behavior of the prosecution.

“This is a useful reminder that while there may well be a sea of change underway in the media’s and the public’s willingness to consider the idea that prosecutors aren’t infallible, their clearly documented legal and ethical violations are still routinely trivialized when the men and women being prosecuted are people we are not supposed to care about.  NBC’s headline [Florida Prosecutor’s Crackhead Insults Get Murder Conviction Tossed] does its ideological work with great concision.  A 57 year-old man addicted to cocaine and hiding in a bathroom becomes a murderer, while violating Florida’s laws regarding fair trials is reduced to the implicitly trivial (and perhaps even laudable?) matter of insulting a crackhead.  It’s a headline that’s been written, in one form or another, for the last thirty years: lowlife gets off because of stupid legal procedure…This case isn’t about exoneration…It’s a routine [case]…yet it captures…where we still are.”

Judge Wendy Berger treated Will’s inappropriate comments, as well as the judge’s lack of action, much more seriously, “Although the trial judge in the instant case properly sustained objections by defense counsel, not once was the jury instructed to disregard the improper comments, nor was the prosecutor called to task for his conduct.  In my view, [a judge] sitting silent absent an objection by opposing counsel, tacitly, albeit unintentionally, condones such conduct…[I]t is no longer—if it ever was—acceptable for the judiciary to act simply as a fight promoter, who supplies an arena in which parties may fight it out on unseemly terms of their own choosing…Judges have a responsibility to protect jurors from improper closing arguments.  Failing to do so demeans the system of justice we serve to protect.”

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