Prosecutor's 'gangbanger' remarks and emotional closing lead to reversal

A Connecticut appeals court decided to send a message to a prosecutor accused of appealing to jurors’ emotions when it reversed the conviction of a man accused of killing a bar owner in 1998 and ordered a new trial.

The appeals court opinion (PDF) said Assistant State’s Attorney Terence Mariani Jr. of Waterbury made improper arguments in the trial of Victor Santiago, as well as in previous cases, the Associated Press and the Connecticut Law Tribune report. “We believe that nothing short of reversal will have the effect of deterring him,” the court said.

Mariani was accused of calling the defendant, Victor Santiago, a “gangbanger” and referring to his gang involvement despite a trial judge’s ruling that gang evidence could only be introduced to explain why Santiago’s wife feared him and delayed going to police. The appeals court also cited this closing argument by Santiago and said it was similar to his remarks in a prior case:

“This case reminded me of why I became a prosecutor,” Mariani said. “You know, we’re here, all of us, to seek the administration of justice, and that’s what this case is about. And every once in a while a case comes along that reminds me of how important this job is. And this is one of those cases. Because what happens? I mean, the beautiful thing about this case is that for 12 years—for 12 years the defendant got away with murder. And here we are this jury able to reach back in time and hold him responsible for what he did. That’s what my job is about, and that’s what your function is about, to make people pay for the wrongs that they’ve done.”

The court referred to remarks by Mariani in other cases. In one, he suggested justice would have been better served if the defendant rather than the victims had died. In another, he stressed the defendant was dangerous with this argument: “If I loaded that gun and shut out the lights in this courtroom and put it in his hand, I think everybody would have a different perception of how dangerous he is.”

The court said “Mariani made several improper comments in this case, a felony murder case, and, in so doing, jeopardized the constitutionality of the trial proceedings.”

“More troublesome, however, is his repeated and deliberate use of improper argument throughout other cases,” the court said. “Despite the fact that this court and supreme court have repeatedly determined that Mariani has exceeded the bounds of proper conduct, he continues to do so.”

Waterbury State’s Attorney Maureen Platt told the Connecticut Law Tribune that Mariani is a respected and hard-working prosecutor. “I think he feels very strongly and deeply about his cases,” said Platt. “I’m sure he’s very saddened by the court’s conclusions.”

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