RNH Law Blog

People v. Marshall – Prosecutor’s use of race inappropriate.

Illinois courts have consistently condemned prosecutors injecting race into opening statements or closing arguments. However, this still seems to be an issue as evidenced in the Fifth District case of People v. Marshall, 2013 IL App (5th) 110430.

In Marshall, the Defendant was charged and, subsequently, convicted of two counts of first-degree murder. Id. at ¶ 3, ¶ 10. The State produced two witnesses, Jodie Lacy and Crystal Blye, who implicated the Defendant in the victim’s murder. Id. at ¶ 4. These witnesses gave statements to the police shortly after the incident, which they later recanted in letters written to Defendant’s attorney. Id. at ¶ 5-6. When they testified at trial, both witnesses testified for the State. Id.

It was obvious that the prosecution needed to do something to mend the credibility issues of Blye and Lacy, given the initial statements given and then the recanting of those statements. To explain the change in their story, the prosecuting attorney made an opening statement relating to “the black community” in Marion, Ilinois, and that community’s unwillingness to cooperate with the police. Id. at ¶ 7.

When it came time for closing arguments, the prosecutor continued to make race a central theme to the case. Specifically, he stated, “But in the black community here in Marion… most of these people were raised to believe that the police and prosecutors are the enemy; that for some reason, we are always out to get them. In their mindset, the biggest sin that you could–that you can commit is to be a snitch in the community. The biggest sin that you could commit is to ever cooperate with the police on anything.” Id. at ¶ 8. Also of note was the prosecutor’s statement that, “in our white world, ladies and gentlemen, our automatic reaction in that type of situation, if somebody gives a statement to the police and then later on changes their story, the automatic response would be that that person is not truthful and that there is a problem with their credibility.” Id. at ¶ 9.

On review, the Appellate court reiterated the general condemnation of a prosecutor introducing race into a trial. Specifically, the court pointed to People v. Eddmonds, 101 Ill. 2d 44, 66 (1984) (“appeals to racial prejudice [in prosecutorial arguments] are to be condemned”), People v. Brown, 170 Ill. App. 3d 273, 283 (1988), and People v. Richardson, 49 Ill. App. 3d 170 (1977), as a line of cases that support this contention. Id. at ¶ 13. The court wasted little time concluding that the error of the prosecutor was plain error, which they could address without the issue having been preserved by objection during the trial. Id. Although it was never explained, the defense counsel did not make any objections to the prosecutor’s use of race during the opening statement or closing arguments. Normally, this is necessary to preserve an issue for appeal; however, the Marshall court was able to address the racial issue because it was clear error on the part of the prosecutor.

The court also addressed the prosecutor’s statements referring to, “our white world.” Even though it wasn’t necessary to the court’s decision, it was noted that it was improper for the prosecutor to inject an “us versus them” argument that this statement engenders. Id. at ¶ 16. It was obvious to the court that the prosecutor was trying to align himself and his case with the jury, thereby turning himself into another juror. Id. The end result was that the Appellate court overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial. Id. at ¶ 19.

As this holding shows, prosecutorial use of race as a filter to understand witness testimony, or assess the witness’s credibility, is reversible error.