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Improper Closing Arguments – Part 2 – Personal Opinions and Beliefs

by William L. Pfeifer, Jr. on May 3, 2012

in Appeals

In the second installment of our series on improper closing arguments in Alabama trials, we look at the problem of arguing personal opinions and beliefs. While attorneys are certainly free to talk about the evidence and draw logical inferences and conclusions from it, it is improper for a lawyer to express his or her personal beliefs and opinions. This issue most commonly arises in the context of prosecutors expressing their personal opinion to the jury that a defendant is guilty.

As the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals commented in Quinlivan v. State, 579 So. 2d 1386, 1387 (Ala. Crim. App. 1991), “Over a half century ago, the United States Supreme Court put special restraints on a prosecutor during closing arguments because of his unique role in the criminal justice system.” In Quinlivan, the conviction of the defendant/appellant was reversed by the Court of Criminal Appeals because of the prosecutor arguing his personal belief in the defendant’s guilt. The Court stated that “we are of the opinion that the prosecutor’s argument was nothing more than a blatant statement of his personal belief in the appellant’s guilt.”

The Alabama Supreme Court also addressed this issue in Adams v. State, 198 So. 2d 255 (Ala. 1967), holding that it is never proper for the prosecuting attorney to argue to the jury his personal belief in the belief in the guilt of the accused, as it makes the lawyer’s own character and credibility a consideration to the jury. The character and credibility of the lawyers is not part of the judicial proceeding, and efforts by the prosecutor to offer personal opinions violates his or her duties under the American Bar Association Canons of Professional Ethics. In essence, it allows the attorney to testify to facts not in evidence without being sworn in as a witness or being subject to cross-examination.

As discussed in our article on Improper Closing Arguments – Part 1 – Facts Not in Evidence, this issue must be raised to the trial court by the trial lawyer by means of an objection in order for this issue to be argued on appeal. If the trial lawyer does not make an objection to the improper closing argument, then the appellate courts will not consider the issue. The sole exception to this rule is in the context of death penalty cases, where the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court will review the issue under the “plain error” standard. This probably explains why most of the published opinions discussing this issue are capital murder cases, as so few trial lawyers ever make objections to the closing arguments of their opponents.

Did you get convicted in a trial where the prosecutor argued his personal opinion that you were guilty? If your lawyer objected to it at trial, then you may have a good basis for having your conviction reversed on appeal. Contact our office to find out about your right to appeal and to discuss whether you have grounds for reversing a conviction or verdict over improper closing arguments. Also, if your attorney failed to make an objection, it may still be possible for you to raise the issue through a Rule 32 petition. You can find several articles about Rule 32 petitions in our blog, or you can contact our office to discuss the specifics of your case.

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