Prosecutorial misconduct has led to one of Nevada’s most infamous cases being overturned. An appellate panel overturned the death sentence of Ricky David Sechrest for the murder of Maggie Schindler, 10, and Carly Villa, 9, in 1983 over statements made by then-District Attorney Mills Lane. Lane is well-known to many as a syndicated television judge and a referee.
Lane repeatedly told the jury that, if they didn’t sentence Sechrest to death, he could be released by the parole board as early as the day following their sentence. It was a lie. If he was not given a death sentence, state law would have mandated a life sentence.
The opinion written by Circuit Judge Harry Pregerson stated “A prosecutor’s misleading and inflammatory arguments may violate a defendant’s due process right to a fair trial . . . the prosecutor repeatedly misled the jurors by suggesting that a decision by the Board of Pardon Commissioners could (and likely would) free Sechrest if the jury did not return a verdict imposing the death sentence. . . . The rule has always been that neither prosecutors nor defense lawyers can misstate the law in their arguments to a jury.” For a copy of the opinion, click here.
I would expect Nevada to appeal to either the en banc or the Supreme Court or both. However, if left unchanged, this case could offer some real deterrence for this form of prosecutorial misconduct. There is an impression that some prosecutors engage in prejudicial statements in closing arguments because they know that courts are unlikely to overturn a case on such misconduct. This case proves that calculus wrong.
Lane is now crippled from a stroke. Like other television personalities like Nancy Grace, Lane’s practice may have been less stellar than his persona. What is astonishing is that, with two dead girls, Lane did not have to try to subvert the jury deliberations. Sometimes, prosecutors will so need a verdict in a high profile case that they will try such improper arguments to guarantee the result in an already strong case. For an ambitious prosecutor, the temptation can be simply too great to resist.
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