An interesting and ironic-chuckle-inducing opinion from the Colorado Court of Appeals (via Volokh), where the trial court granted a mistrial in a criminal case. The defendant had been charged with assaulting his estranged wife and one of her friends, with threatening the wife, and with disturbing the peace.
As some of these prosecutions go, there was a defense. The defense was basically that the wife was a liar and would do anything to gain leverage in a contentious custody battle involving the couple’s infant son.
At the beginning and again at the end of opening statement, defense counsel told the jury of the defense contention that the wife would “do anything,” including making false claims against defendant, to keep custody.
The wife was the first witness against defendant. Defense counsel began cross-examination by asking several questions about the then-ongoing marriage dissolution and child custody proceedings. The prosecution objected – stating “we’re here on a criminal trial not on the divorce case” – but the court overruled the objection and allowed this line of questioning to continue. While allowing defense counsel “a little bit of latitude” in this area, the court did urge counsel to “cut to the chase.”
Further questioning established that the wife had taken the couple’s son when she left defendant (before the nightclub incident) and the courts were deciding custody. Two questions followed:
Q. You know that [defendant] is from Africa?
Q. You know that if he is found guilty of this he’ll be deported? The prosecution objected before the second question was answered, stating it was “completely improper to bring that up in this proceeding.” The court promptly ordered a recess.
Outside the jury’s presence, the prosecutor moved for a mistrial. He argued the jury had been “irrevocably tainted” by questioning that was “a ploy to invoke sympathy for the defendant” and amounted to “probably the worst violation [he had] ever seen.” Defense counsel responded that the question went to the “heart of our defense” and defendant was constitutionally entitled to ask it. Counsel proffered that she had spoken with defendant’s immigration attorney, that this assault conviction would lead to deportation, and that the wife “knows all of that.”
The trial court then granted the prosecutor’s motion for mistrial (yes, I did not type that incorrectly), while “vehemently disagreeing” with defense counsel (seems that this judge has learned from my tips for objections). Continue reading