Criminal Justice

Federal Prosecutor's 'Inflammatory' Remarks in Closing Get Drug Trafficking Conviction Reversed

A federal appeals court has overturned the drug trafficking conviction of a California man because of a prosecutor’s “inflammatory” remarks during his closing arguments.

In a ruling (PDF) Tuesday, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the prosecutor’s remarks were both “improper and prejudicial,” the Recorder reports.

The court ordered a new trial for Arturo Sanchez, a U.S. citizen living in Mexico who was arrested at the Mexican border in 2008 after border patrol agents found 64 pounds of cocaine hidden in various compartments of his car.

At trial, Sanchez admitted that he knew he was carrying drugs in his car but claimed he had done so under duress because the people he worked for told him they would “do something” to his family if he didn’t.

He also said he never called the Mexican police because he thought they were corrupt and didn’t tell his wife what he was doing for fear she would tell her mother, who would go to the police.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Arguello, in his closing argument, ridiculed the defendant’s story, suggesting that an acquittal would send a message to all drug traffickers that they can “get away” with their crimes if they instruct the people they recruit as drivers to say they had been forced to do so because their families had been threatened.

Appeals court judge Harry Pregerson, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, called the remarks a “policy argument against acquittal” that improperly appealed to the “passions, fears and vulnerabilities” of the jury.

Sanchez’s lawyer, David Zugman of San Diego, said he doubted the ruling would stop prosecutors from making such generalized appeals to the safety of the community, which have proven to be pretty effective with juries.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office declined comment.

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