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State v. Lawrence

Supreme Court of Montana

December 27, 2016

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
v.
WILLIAM JAMES LAWRENCE, Defendant and Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: October 26, 2016

         District Court of the First Judicial District, In and For the County of Lewis and Clark, Cause No. ADC 14-147 Honorable Mike Menahan, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Chad Wright, Chief Appellate Defender, Alexander H. Pyle, Assistant Appellate Defender, Helena, Montana.

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Sarah Clerget, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana Leo Gallagher, Lewis and Clark County Attorney, Lisa Leckie, Deputy County Attorney, Helena, Montana.

          OPINION

          Patricia Cotter Justice.

         ¶1 William Lawrence appeals from his conviction for felony theft following a jury trial in the First Judicial District Court, Lewis and Clark County. Lawrence raises allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, and an abuse of discretion by the District Court. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

         ISSUE

         ¶2 Lawrence raises four issues on appeal. We restate the dispositive issue as follows:

         Whether the prosecutor's comments during closing arguments require reversal under the plain error doctrine?

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶3 On April 8, 2014, Lawrence and his brother, Steven Dubois, arrived at Wayne Miller Coins on Last Chance Gulch in Helena, Montana. Lawrence and Dubois entered the shop after being buzzed in through the back door. Lawrence was in possession of coins he wished to have appraised, something he had done previously at Miller Coins. After Wayne Miller, the owner of the shop, informed him that his coins were valueless, Lawrence perused the store while questioning a store employee, Emily Gleason, about some of the items. Meanwhile, Dubois made his way to the back door, apparently intent on leaving the store. While following his brother out of the shop, Lawrence stopped to admire artwork adorning the walls of the hallway. As Lawrence continued to look at the artwork, Dubois grabbed a shipping package containing roughly $10, 500 in silver, one-ounce coins and exited the store. Lawrence then started toward the back door. Gleason saw Dubois take the package and hurried to the back of the store to confront Lawrence. After a brief exchange, Lawrence left and got in a car with Dubois, who drove away. Lawrence was apprehended the next day in possession of a backpack containing nearly half of the stolen silver coins.

         ¶4 Lawrence was charged with theft under § 45-6-301(1)(a), MCA. A two-day trial was held in the First Judicial District Court, Lewis and Clark County. During closing argument, the prosecutor told the jury, "The presumption of innocence that you came into this trial with no longer exists at this point." Defense counsel did not object. Subsequently, the jury found Lawrence guilty of felony theft and he was sentenced to ten years in prison.

         ¶5 On appeal, Lawrence raises a myriad of arguments, alleging that the prosecutor committed plain error requiring reversal by stripping Lawrence of the presumption of innocence as well as misstating the law of the charged offense. Further, Lawrence argues that the District Court abused its discretion by not granting a mistrial after the State violated an order in limine, and that defense counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to prosecutorial misconduct, an erroneous jury instruction, and hearsay testimony by a witness for the State.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶6 In general, this Court does not address issues of "'prosecutorial misconduct pertaining to a prosecutor's statements not objected to at trial.'" State v. Aker, 2013 MT 253, ¶ 21, 371 Mont. 491, 310 P.3d 506 (quoting State v. Longfellow, 2008 MT 343, ¶ 24, 346 Mont. 286, 194 P.3d 694). However, we may exercise our discretion and review such issues under the plain error doctrine. Aker, ¶ 21 (citing State v. Lacey, 2012 MT 52, ¶ 14, 364 Mont. 291, 272 P.3d 1288); State v. Hayden, 2008 MT 274, ¶ 17, 345 Mont. 252, 190 P.3d 1091. The plain error doctrine is to be used sparingly, and only on a case-by-case basis. Hayden, ¶ 17. Once the doctrine is invoked, this Court's review is grounded in our "inherent duty to interpret the constitution and to protect individual rights set forth in the constitution." State v. Finley, 276 Mont. 126, 134, 915 P.2d 208, 213 (1996) overruled on other grounds State v. Gallagher, 2001 MT 39, ¶ 21, 304 Mont. 215, 19 P.3d 817.

         DISCUSSION

         ¶7 We do not reach the issues regarding the order in limine, the alleged hearsay, or the jury instruction, nor do we reach the question of whether defense counsel's failure to object to the prosecutor's statement constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel. Pertinent here, Lawrence argues the prosecutor's statement regarding the presumption of innocence constitutes plain error requiring reversal and remand for a new trial.

         ¶8 Whether the prosecutor's comments during closing arguments require reversal under the plain error doctrine?

         ¶9 The purpose of the plain error doctrine is to correct an error not objected to at trial that affects the "fairness, integrity, and public reputation of judicial proceedings." Finley, 276 Mont. at 134, 915 P.2d at 213. The plain error doctrine may be used "'in situations that implicate a defendant's fundamental constitutional rights, '" and where "'failing to review the alleged error may result in a manifest miscarriage of justice, leave unsettled the question of the fundamental fairness of the proceedings, or compromise the integrity of the judicial process.'" Aker, ¶ 21 (quoting State v. McDonald, 2013 MT 97, ¶ 8, 369 Mont. 483, 299 P.3d 799). Therefore, we first determine whether the defendant's fundamental constitutional rights have been implicated.

         ¶10 The underlying question here is a simple one: whether a prosecutor stating during closing argument that the presumption of innocence has been removed from the defendant implicates a defendant's fundamental rights. We cannot overstate the importance of the foundational principle that is the presumption of innocence. It is a bedrock, axiomatic, and elementary tenet of our criminal justice system. State v. Williams, 184 Mont. 111, 112, 601 P.2d 1194, 1195 (1979). Further, enforcement of this principle, meaning its application to each and every criminal defendant, "lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law." Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432, 453, 15 S.Ct. 394, 403 (1895). Therefore, we determine that the comment by the prosecutor stating the presumption of innocence no longer applied to the defendant implicated the defendant's fundamental rights. We next determine whether a failure to review this alleged error ...


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