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By Lance J. Rogers
Nov. 16 — Prosecutors went too far during closing argument in a murder case when they played a 67-slide PowerPoint exhibit that concluded with a photo of the victim's bloody body emblazoned with the words “Terror,” “Fear” and “MURDER” in red lettering because the slide served no purpose other than to incite the jury, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled Nov. 13.
“While the prosecutor is entitled to focus the jury's attention on admitted evidence, a slide that achieves no end but to inflame the passions of the jury is improper,” the court said in an opinion by Justice Karen Valihura.
However, that conclusion didn't help defendant Christopher Spence. The court ruled that the error was harmless given the overwhelming evidence of his guilt and the trial court's curative instructions.
The court said it didn't want to discourage the use of technology in closing arguments and added that, as a general principle, “PowerPoint presentations are not inherently good or bad.”
However, the state can't use a PowerPoint to advance an argument visually that it is prohibited from making orally, the court said.
“Fanning the flames of a jury's collective emotions through the use of improper PowerPoint slides to obtain a conviction does not serve the interests of justice,” it said.
Prosecutors aren't allowed to misstate the law or express a personal opinion on the merits of the case verbally and may not do so through technology, the court said.
Moments before closing argument, the prosecutor gave defense counsel a black and white copy of the PowerPoint presentation.
The final slide showed a photo of the victim's “splayed and bloodied” body that had been admitted into evidence. The slide read: “Christopher Spence's actions led to … Terror …Fear …And to the ultimate crime …MURDER[.]”
At oral argument, Spence's lawyer argued, “The words themselves were calculated to inflame the jury.”
He also contended that the color was objectionable, saying, “There was no reason for the words to be in red if the intent was merely to argue the evidence.”
Using the three-pronged test for evaluating the harmfulness of an error—which looks at the closeness of the case, the centrality of the issue affected and the steps taken in mitigation—the court concluded that the improper presentation of the PowerPoint didn't require reversal.
This case wasn't close, as Spence admitted killing the victim and attempting to kill another person, it said. Although Spence argued that he was acting in self-defense, his version of the events didn't support those defenses, it said.
Moreover, the bloody slide had nothing to do with the central issue of justification, and the judge issued an instruction informing the jury that the personal opinions or beliefs of the attorneys didn't constitute evidence, the court said.
Further, although Spence's lawyer objected to the slide show, he declined an offer to help the judge craft a more detailed curative instruction, it said.
Eugene J. Maurer Jr., Wilmington, Del., argued for Spence. Andrew J. Vella, of the Delaware Department of Justice, Wilmington, argued for the state.
To contact the reporter on this story: Lance J. Rogers in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at email@example.com
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