The New Hampshire Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that held a woman criminally negligent in an accident that killed two people on a motorcycle. The ruling highlights the importance of understanding prosecutorial error.
The accident occurred in 2005. The woman was making a left turn on Route 12, near Charlestown. She turned and struck a motorcycle in the oncoming lane. After the accident, the police officers noticed a slight smell of alcohol on her breath. Under suspicion of DUI, she was taken to a hospital and was told she had to supply a blood test or she would lose her license.
The defendant had admitted to having had one drink at dinner, and the court allowed the evidence in at the trial but on the condition that the prosecutor could not imply that the defendant was lying and had substantially more to drink.
However, during the closing argument, the prosecutor failed to adhere to the court’s order. At closing, the prosecutor said, “There was an odor of alcohol. She said she had one glass of wine, but there was a strong odor three hours later.”
The court determined the statements made were prejudicial, particularly because the defendant was unable to respond or offer any rebuttal arguments.
After this decision, the prosecutor decided not to retry the defendant for a third time, and instead, negotiated a 30-day sentence.
Had she been convicted of criminal negligence, she could have been sentenced to up to 44 years for the two deaths.
Mistakes Were Made
Prosecutors generally have very high “win” records. One reason is many cases “plead out,” where a defendant pleads guilty to a charge, sometimes reduced with lesser penalties, in exchange for not forcing a prosecutor to go to trial and prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
But police and prosecutors are not infallible, and given the many examples of exonerated prisoners, the system is not immune to error. Nonetheless, we hold the prosecution to a high burden of proof because the founders of our U.S. Constitution understood the tremendous power the state has when it moves to remove a person’s liberty.
A defense attorney’s job is not simply to “zealously protect” the rights of their clients. By vigorously forcing the police and prosecution to properly execute their duties, they protect the rights of everyone from unfair and unconstitutional prosecutions.
And this is why if you have been charged with any crime, you should speak with a defense attorney immediately. Your attorney can evaluate the facts and help determine if there are potential flaws or weakness with the prosecution’s case. Trials are of fundamental importance, as it is the one arena where the police, prosecutors and the state, can be held accountable.
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