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Prosecutor Misconduct in Murder Case Didn't Render Trial Unfair

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on April 13, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Prosecutorial misconduct did not render a murder trial fundamentally unfair according to the Third Circuit, affirming the lower court. What kind of misconduct are we talking about? The misconduct included repeated suggestion that the defendant's freedom would threaten the jurors' safety, the suggestion that the defendant's discarded firearm would endanger children, and repeated showings of images of a bloodied corpse the defendant had shot.

The Shooting and Ineffective Counsel

Awsa Mills was indicted and convicted for the 2001 shooting and murder of victim Clement which took place in the victim's yard. A scuffle took place between the defendant and the victim over what seemed to be a disagreement over money. He immediately helped to discredit himself in court by testifying that whether the value of $10 exceeding the value of $1,000 would depend on the situation. The jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts against Mills except for one. Mills Appealed on several theories including ineffective counsel.

Mills argued that the lower court had let procedure get out of hand by allowing the prosecutors to unfairly prejudice him with their conduct and that his own attorney was ineffectual. The Circuit would eventually agree with him that the prosecution stepped over the line (agreeing with the district court), but that no grounds existed to overturn his conviction.

There's No Place Like Home

The prosecution really took it to the line in their case against Mills. "Home sweet home," they chimed in their opening statements. "There's no place like home unless you have a [sic] Aswa Mills who come [sic] into your house." The prosecutors later expressly intimated that the juror's lives depended on their verdict. "We got to stop these Aswa Mills from coming to our home and ruining our lives. There's no place like home."

Both the district and the circuit agreed that prosecutors stepped too far over the line to "fan the flames of the jurors fears" by suggesting calamity would fall upon the community if Mills were freed.

Somebody Think of the Children

The prosecutors also stepped over the line by making constant references to the dangers of the gun that the defendant discarded somewhere in the community before he was taken into custody. The circuit agreed with the district that this tactic was designed merely to inflame the passions of the jury yet again.

Finally, the circuit agreed with the district court that allowing blown-up enlargements of the victim's bloodied face was improper because it appealed to the jury's emotions.

Doesn't Matter

The circuit applied a balancing test as a litmus test in order to determine whether or not a retrial was appropriate under the circumstances. One of the factors, unfortunately for Mills, was his own credibility. In his defense, Mills argued that he shot the victim out of self-defense.

But there was nothing else to corroborate his version of the events. In fact, the physical evidence conflicted with his story. Plus, he'd already been impeached by giving other conflicting testimony. Because of the overwhelming credibility issues against Mills, the third Circuit concluded that he'd enjoyed due process and that he was not entitled to relief.

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