A St. Louis man convicted of second-degree murder after a children's birthday party turned into a crime scene received a reprieve today -- the Missouri Supreme Court struck down his conviction
, sending the case back to the trial court for a re-do.
In a four to three decision, the state's highest court found that the St. Louis City Circuit Court judge supervising the trial of Anthony Brown wrongly allowed prosecutors "an end run around the law of evidence."
And it all has to do with the size of the gun.
According to the court's newly released opinion on the case, Brown had claimed he was acting in self defense -- that the man he shot
at the party had a gun in the pocket of his sweatpants and had reached for it before
Brown fired. Attempting to demolish that argument, prosecutors
brandished a .38 revolver in their closing arguments, showing that it
couldn't have fit into the pocket in question.
Only problem? The gun hadn't been admitted into evidence. There had been no testimony, in fact, that a .38 was even make of gun allegedly carried by the victim.
But when Brown's lawyers objected, Judge Thomas J. Frawley overruled them. Tellingly, later, when the jury asked to see the gun, Judge Frawley said no -- it "was not received in evidence."
As the Supreme Court justices conclude in their opinion, released today,
[T]he problem in this case is that the State did not show that the size and shape of the victim's gun was similar to the size and shape of the .38 revolver shown to the jury. The State could show only that the victim's gun was "shiny looking" and had a light or pearl handle. This vague, cosmetic description of the victim's gun is insufficient to establish the size and shape of the gun. Without evidence of the size and shape of the victim's gun, there is no way to determine whether the .38 revolver used by the State fairly represented the victim's gun and the impossibility of the victim carrying and drawing the gun in the manner described by the witnesses.
Consequently, the State's closing argument demonstration was necessarily speculative and carried with it the distinct possibility of misleading the jury. The State would not have been able to admit the .38 revolver evidence as evidence at trial. Therefore, the State should not have been able to bypass normal evidentiary limitations by first showing the revolver to the jury in closing argument to rebut Brown's self-defense argument.
As the justices conclude, the error was "not harmless."
"It is apparent that the jury attached significance to the State's demonstration because, during deliberations, the jury asked to see once again the .38 revolver, as well as the sweatpants worn by the victim," they write. And, as any OJ watcher could tell ya, if it doesn't fit, well, umm, you must convict.
We're happy to see justice done in this case, because it seems clear the prosecutors were permitted to pull a fast one here. (Not that we blame the prosecutors for trying, but really -- what was the judge thinking in letting them getting away with it?)
But we do have to ponder at least one important question raised by this case. Namely, since when do sweatpants have pockets?