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Commonwealth v. Potter

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Dec 20, 1971
285 A.2d 492 (Pa. 1971)

Summary

holding that "branding appellant's testimony as a 'malicious lie' " during cross-examination was improper not only because it "exceeded the permissible bounds of cross-examination," but also because it "injected highly prejudicial personal opinion of appellant's credibility into evidence, thereby clearly and improperly intruding upon the jury's exclusive function of evaluating the credibility of witnesses"

Summary of this case from State v. Austin

Opinion

November 12, 1971.

December 20, 1971.

Criminal Law — Remarks of prosecutor — Suggestion to defendant during cross-examination that his testimony was a malicious lie.

1. The prosecuting attorney enjoys an office of unusual responsibility, and his trial conduct should never be vindictive or attempt in any manner to influence the jury by arousing their prejudices. [287]

2. In this case, in which it appeared that the prosecutor in cross-examining defendant suggested to him that all his testimony was a malicious lie, it was Held that the highly prejudicial effect of the prosecutor's statement required the granting of a new trial.

Mr. Chief Justice BELL and Mr. Justice BARBIERI took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Before JONES, EAGEN, O'BRIEN, ROBERTS and POMEROY, JJ.

Appeals, Nos. 437 and 441, Jan. T., 1971, from judgment of sentence of Court of Common Pleas, Trial Division, of Philadelphia, Sept. T., 1970, Nos. 759 and 761, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Larry Potter. Judgment of sentence vacated and new trial granted.

Indictments charging defendant with murder and aggravated robbery. Before LEFEVER, J.

Verdict of guilty of first degree murder and aggravated robbery. Defendant's motions for new trial and in arrest of judgment denied, and judgment of sentence entered. Defendant appealed.

Martin Heller, with him Maximillian J. Klinger, for appellant.

Jeffrey A. Brodkin, Assistant District Attorney, with him Milton M. Stein, Assistant District Attorney, James D. Crawford, Deputy District Attorney, Richard A. Sprague, First Assistant District Attorney, and Arlen Specter, District Attorney, for Commonwealth, appellee.


Appellant was convicted by a jury of first degree murder and armed robbery and sentenced to life imprisonment. After the denial of post-trial motions, this appeal was filed raising numerous contentions. The principal contention challenges the trial court's refusal to grant appellant's motion for a mistrial after a prejudicial statement by the prosecutor during cross-examination of appellant. We agree and vacate the judgment of sentence and grant a new trial.

Appellant also contends: (1) the trial judge entered the case as an advocate for the prosecution; (2) the trial court erred in refusing to sustain appellant's demurrer; (3) the trial court improperly admitted over objection illegal confessions which were based on an unconstitutional lineup; (4) the trial court improperly failed to suppress in-court identifications; (5) the court's charge was biased in favor of the Commonwealth. In light of our disposition, we need not reach these claims.

Appellant testified in his own behalf and stated that he had been beaten by the police after being taken into custody. On cross-examination, the following exchange occurred: "Q. [Prosecutor]: Did you tell him [public defender] that the police had just beaten you up? Did you show him the marks on your face? A. [Appellant]: No sir. Q. Why not? A. Why not? Q. Yes, why not? A. He wasn't concerned about any marks on my face. Q. I suggest to you, Mr. Potter — A. You suggest to me what? Q. I suggest to you that the reason that you didn't say anything about it is because what you have said about being beaten by the police is a malicious lie like all the rest of your testimony. A. No, it is not. [Counsel]: Objection, Your Honor. That was not a question, Your Honor. [Prosecutor]: I suggested to him that he was lying. [Counsel]: I move for a mistrial. THE COURT: Motion for a mistrial denied. [To the prosecutor] I criticize you . . . for characterizing it that way. Yon don't need to do that."

The ABA Standards Relating to the Prosecution Function expressly state: "It is unprofessional conduct for the prosecutor to express his personal belief or opinion as to the truth or falsity of any testimony or evidence . . . of the defendant." ABA Project on Standards for Criminal Justice, Standards Relating to the Prosecution and Defense Function § 5.8(b) (Prosecution Function) (Approved Draft 1970). The ABA Code of Professional Responsibility also provides that ". . . a lawyer shall not . . . (4) Assert his personal opinion . . . as to the credibility of a witness. . . ." ABA Special Committee on Evaluation of Ethical Standards, Code of Professional Responsibility, DR 7-106(C)(4) (1969). These standards are in response to the view that ". . . the cause should turn on the evidence, not on the standing of the advocate, and the witnesses must stand on their own." ABA Standards, Prosecution, supra at § 5.8(b) (Commentary).

The prosecutor, in branding appellant's testimony as a "malicious lie" exceeded the permissible bounds of cross-examination. Furthermore, he injected his highly prejudicial personal opinion of appellant's credibility into evidence, thereby clearly and improperly intruding upon the jury's exclusive function of evaluating the credibility of witnesses. See United States v. Schartner, 426 F.2d 470, 478 (3d Cir. 1970); People v. Lombardi, 20 N.Y. 2d 266, 229 N.E.2d 206 (1967); Commonwealth v. Maloney, 365 Pa. 1, 5, 73 A.2d 707, 709 (1950); People v. Reese, 220 Cal.App.2d 143, 33 Cal.Rptr. 561 (1963); People v. Hickman, 34 App. Div. 2d 831, 312 N.Y.S.2d 644 (1970).

This Court has made clear ". . . that the prosecuting attorney enjoys an office of unusual responsibility, and that his trial conduct should never be vindictive or attempt in any manner to influence the jury by arousing their prejudices." Commonwealth v. Toney, 439 Pa. 173, 180, 266 A.2d 732, 736 (1970). Likewise, the ABA Standards Relating to the Prosecution Function recognize: "The prosecutor is both an administrator of justice and an advocate; he must exercise sound discretion in the performance of his functions." ABA Project, Prosecution Function, supra at § 1.1(b). Furthermore, "[t]he duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict." Id. at § 1.1(c).

Considering the prosecutor's "office of unusual responsibility" and the highly prejudicial effect of his statement, the only appropriate relief is the granting of a new trial. The judgment of sentence is vacated and a new trial is granted.

Mr. Chief Justice BELL and Mr. Justice BARBIERI took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.


Summaries of

Commonwealth v. Potter

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Dec 20, 1971
285 A.2d 492 (Pa. 1971)

holding that "branding appellant's testimony as a 'malicious lie' " during cross-examination was improper not only because it "exceeded the permissible bounds of cross-examination," but also because it "injected highly prejudicial personal opinion of appellant's credibility into evidence, thereby clearly and improperly intruding upon the jury's exclusive function of evaluating the credibility of witnesses"

Summary of this case from State v. Austin

In Commonwealth v. Potter, 445 Pa. 284, 285 A.2d 492 (1971), the Court issued a strong pronouncement condemning a prosecutor's characterization of a defendant's testimony as a malicious lie.

Summary of this case from Commonwealth v. Cox

In Commonwealth v. Potter, 445 Pa. 284, 285 A.2d 492 (1971), we reversed a conviction because the prosecutor branded the defendant's testimony a lie.

Summary of this case from Com. v. Johnson

In Commonwealth v. Potter, 445 Pa. 284, 285 A.2d 492 (1971) we held that a prosecutor's comment of this type on the testimony of a defendant was so highly prejudicial that it could be remedied only by the granting of a new trial.

Summary of this case from Com. v. Caesar

In Commonwealth v. Potter, 445 Pa. 284, 285 A.2d 492 (1971), this Court reversed a conviction because the prosecutor branded defendant's testimony a lie.

Summary of this case from Commonwealth v. Gilman

In Potter the district attorney said this to the defendant during cross-examination: "What you have said about being beaten by the police is a malicious lie like the rest of your testimony."

Summary of this case from Commonwealth v. McNeal

In Commonwealth v. Potter, 445 Pa. 284, 285 A.2d 492 (1971), the appellant was granted a new trial because the district attorney called the accused a liar in the presence of the jury.

Summary of this case from Commonwealth v. Toth

prosecuting attorney labeled defendant's testimony on cross-examination a "malicious lie"

Summary of this case from Com. v. Grosso

In Commonwealth v. Potter, 445 Pa. 284, 285 A.2d 492 (1971), our supreme court reversed a conviction where the district attorney branded the appellant's testimony a "malicious lie.

Summary of this case from Com. v. Hustler

In Potter, the Supreme Court held that a reprimand of the district attorney by the trial judge could not cure the prejudice, and that the only appropriate relief was to grant a new trial.

Summary of this case from Commonwealth v. Caesar
Case details for

Commonwealth v. Potter

Case Details

Full title:Commonwealth v. Potter, Appellant

Court:Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Date published: Dec 20, 1971

Citations

285 A.2d 492 (Pa. 1971)
285 A.2d 492

Citing Cases

Com. v. Potter

Appellant's first conviction was set aside by this Court because of an improper expression of opinion by the…

Commonwealth v. Hubbard

At times we have deemed comments of this type to be so prejudicial that a new trial was considered to be the…