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AEDPA Deference Despite Prosecutor's Improper Closing

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

Ronald Miller is an Oklahoma man convicted of two counts of sexual abuse of a minor and one count of furnishing alcohol to a minor, who -- based on the prosecutor's statements -- seems to be related to Miller.

Miller appealed his convictions to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA), citing alleged improper statements to the jury by both the prosecutor and the judge, as well as ineffective assistance of counsel claims due to his lawyer's failure to object.

What were those statements?

In the prosecutor's closing argument, he made a number of statements that the defendant did not object to at the time, but now claims were improper, including:

  1. She's making every effort to be honest. To recall. She's trying to tell you to the best of her ability this is what happened to me.
  2. She stayed in that shelter because you know why? It happened.
  3. Unfortunately, in these types of cases, there's rarely other evidence.
  4. Do you think the state prosecutes people who don't abuse their children?

The defendant also took issue with questions the judge asked during voir dire that bolstered the victim's testimony and aroused societal alarm.

OCCA didn't sympathize with his plight, finding that Miller failed to show plain error in the prosecutor's comments, that the judge's questions were proper, and that the defendant's counsel's performance was deficient or that the trial would have had a different outcome had timely objections been made.

The case ended up in the Tenth Circuit on appeal from a denial of a § 2254 application by the district court. Per the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), habeas relief is only available when the state court decision "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States," or "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding."

Obviously, that's heavy deference. Unfortunately for Miller, despite one of those prosecutorial statements being clearly improper - can you guess which one? - that standard was not met.

If you guessed that the fourth statement was "highly improper," you are correct: The statement insinuates personal knowledge of guilt or of evidence not presented to the jury.

Unfortunately neither you nor Miller win anything, as the court deferred to the OCCA's determination that Miller failed to show that he was prejudiced by the remark or that it resulted in an unfair trial.

As for the judges questions, Miller failed to show any SCOTUS authority prohibiting such questions. In fact, SCOTUS has "stressed the wide discretion granted to the trial court in conducting voir dire in ... areas of inquiry that might tend to show juror bias."

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