The Supreme Court of Delaware has overturned the conviction and death sentence of Isaiah McCoy. McCoy, 27, was convicted of a 2010 bowling alley parking lot murder.
McCoy represented himself at trial and subsequently in his appeal. He sought a reversal of his conviction and death sentence based upon the court’s failure to permit one of his peremptory challenges during jury selection and state prosecutor R. David Favata’s misconduct in vouching for a witness and behaving unprofessionally throughout the trial.
The Delaware Supreme Court found that the trial court “committed reversible error when it improperly denied McCoy’s right to exercise a peremptory challenge to strike a potential juror,” whose wife had worked at a detention facility where the defendant was an inmate.
“In addition, reversible error occurred when the prosecutor improperly vouched for the credibility of a key witness for the State. We also address the pervasive unprofessional conduct of the prosecutor that permeated these proceedings and compromised McCoy’s right of self-representation.”
The improper vouching occurred when during the defendant’s cross-examination of the state’s witness, one of his alleged accomplices, the prosecutor objected saying in front of the jury,
“She obviously hasn’t spoken to the defendant since he shot her boyfriend.”
“[T]he prosecutor improperly vouched for Williams’ testimony by expressing his personal opinion that McCoy was guilty…the comment made here implied that the prosecutor had superior knowledge unavailable to the jury…The prosecutor implicitly and inappropriately corroborated Williams’ testimony and endorsed her credibility. As such the prosecutor’s objection constituted… prosecutorial misconduct.”
Based upon the degree to which the state’s case relied upon alleged accomplice testimony, the court found the misconduct was not harmless. Later in the opinion, the court goes into great detail on Favata’s “insulting and disruptive conduct…throughout the trial.”
Prosecutor Favata was not happy when McCoy chose to represent himself and allowed his opinions about the case to infect his behavior. For example, when a question arose during a hearing about the defendant’s attire at trial, Favala said, “I don’t care. You can dress him up. He’s still a murderer.” He later directly addressed the defendant and said, “start acting like a man.” The court cites over 20 instances of Favala’s inappropriate bullying and disparaging remarks, as well as the prosecutor’s inability to conduct himself appropriately in court. He often attacked McCoy’s education level as well. At one point, he said of the defense’s case, “That’s what happens when you rely on made up evidence.”
Such behavior did not go unremarked by the trial judge.
During the penalty phase, the trial judge told the prosecutor, “your antics in this trial have been totally disrespectful…of what properly should happen in a court procedure, particularly a serious matter like this…”
The Supreme Court of Delaware concluded, “The prosecutor’s repetitive pattern of unprofessional conduct set a tone for trial that is inconsistent with the due process rights of a capital defendant…The record in this case reflects that the prosecutor’s conduct was so demeaning and belligerent to McCoy, outside the presence of the jury, that it reasonably could have affected the effectiveness of McCoy’s self-representation in front of the jury…[This] record reflects a pattern of unprofessional conduct by the prosecutor that impugns the integrity of the judicial process. Most of the sarcasm directed at McCoy related directly to his choice to exercise his right to defend himself.”
The court however, refused to cite the prosecutorial misconduct as the reason for overturning the conviction. They did not issue an opinion on whether the misconduct was reversible error, instead, they let their opinion rely upon the jury challenge and the witness vouching.