What can a Prosecutor argue with the word “reasonable”: People v. Ramirez
In trial on a criminal cases, the burden of proof on the People is obviously proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In trials, sometimes the People can slip into arguing not to buy the defense because it’s not reasonable…and that the only reasonable conclusion is a guilty verdict.
Well, this December 17, 2019 decision People v. Ramirez* discusses how to argue and walk this line. Because sometimes making that argument is Prosecutor Misconduct…or better called Prosecutor Error since “[t]o establish such error, bad faith on the prosecutor’s part is not required.”
Ramirez walks the line with another part of law that can be argued, the jury instruction CALCRIM 224.
What is CALCRIM 224?
CALCRIM 224 is the jury instruction (ie. the law) about relying on circumstantial evidence. Relevant here, it states: “[B]efore you may rely on circumstantial evidence to find the defendant guilty, you must be convinced that the only reasonable conclusion supported by the circumstantial evidence is that the defendant is guilty. If you can draw two or more reasonable conclusions from the circumstantial evidence, and one of those reasonable conclusions points to innocence and another to guilt, you must accept the one that points to innocence. However, when considering circumstantial evidence, you must accept only reasonable conclusions and reject any that are unreasonable.”
It’s that last part I italicized that Prosecutors argue in closing arguments all the time.
However, understand “reasonable” is to be used differently when arguing CALCRIM 224 than when arguing the standard of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” in CALCRIM 220. That’s the meat of this case.
What the People can and cannot argue:
This is ok: A prosecutor may argue reasonably possible interpretations to be drawn from the evidence. It is permissible to argue that the jury may reject impossible or unreasonable interpretations of the evidence and to so characterize a defense theory. The prosecutor may urge the jury to accept the reasonable and reject the unreasonable”‘ in evaluating the evidence before it.
That’s all ok, as long as it’s argued to CALCRIM 224.
This is NOT ok: A prosecutor may not argue or even suggest the prosecution’s burden of proof is satisfied if the prosecution’s evidence presents a reasonable account. A prosecutor may argue that defense interpretations of the evidence are unreasonable, but may not argue that deficiencies in the defense evidence can make up for shortcomings in the prosecution’s case. The prosecutor may not confound the concept of rejecting unreasonable inferences with the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
All of this comes from Ramirez citing the California Supreme Court case People v. Centeno (2014) 60 Cal.4th 659.
This is what happened in Centeno:
The People argued “[i]s it reasonable to believe that the defendant is being set-up in what is really a very unsophisticated conspiracy led by an officer who has never met the defendant or he[‘s] good for it? That is what is reasonable. He’s good for it.”
The Supreme Court concluded the italicized parts of the prosecutor’s argument misstated the burden of proof because they “left the jury with the impression that so long as [the prosecutor’s] interpretation of the evidence was reasonable, the People had met their burden.” Nope, can’t do that.
Back to Ramirez here. The Court holds this is not Prosecutor Error, saying “[i]n urging the jury to adopt the reasonable inferences and reject the unreasonable, the prosecutor was not discussing the beyond a reasonable doubt standard of proof that the prosecutor was required to meet.” It’s a fine line to understand where exactly this argument is being made and to object if it’s inappropriate…because Jurors can slip into the mind frame of convicting if they think the prosecution was “reasonable.” And that’s not the burden of proof.
Here is exactly what the Prosecutor said in the rebuttal closing so you can track it:
“But that word `reasonable’ that he left out is huge here… Because the conclusions have to be reasonable conclusions, reasonable, intelligent, make sense, and they don’t make sense at all… But the fact of the matter is, this is the evidence in the case, and the evidence points to her, and there’s only one reasonable interpretation. [Arguing the facts], that’s not a reasonable interpretation. That’s — that’s not reasonable. …Your job is not to go down unreasonable hallways, don’t go unreasonable, because reasonable is part of the word doubt too. You have doubts, they better be reasonable doubts… So if you stay with reasonable, there’s only one interpretation, her guilt.”
*a decision from Court of Appeals of California, Fifth District