Emotions Clouded Utah Rape Trial, Court Says

     SALT LAKE CITY (CN) – Reversing rape and sex-abuse convictions against two men, a Utah appeals court found that the prosecution unfairly swayed the jury by making an emotional appeal for them to protect the victim.
     The separate April 16 rulings describes the allegations of an early-morning assault in 2012, as credited by the Salt Lake jury.
     N.C., as she is named in the complaint, says David Akok and his friend, John Jok, groped her while she slept on a living room couch, held her down and assaulted her.
     She claimed that Akok had sexual intercourse with her while she said “Please, no” and “stop,” and that Jok pushed his finger into her vagina.
     N.C. asked her roommate to call police after the attack and officers arrived to find the men intoxicated, Akok unable to even stand up on his own.
     A nurse found N.C.’s injuries were consistent with forcible penetration and sex, but did not confirm that she was sexually assaulted.
     Later, semen matching the Akok’s genetic profile was determined to be in N.C.’s vagina.
     During closing arguments in the case, a prosecutor made an emotional appeal to the jury.
     “When you look at the totality of the evidence it is very clear that [Akok and Jok] engaged in sexual intercourse and touched her without her consent,” the attorney said, according to the ruling. “They took advantage of a very vulnerable victim. Don’t let them take advantage of it again. Thank you.”
     After four hours of deliberation, the jury convicted both men of intoxication, Akok of rape, and Jok of two counts of forcible sexual abuse.
     The Utah Supreme Court reversed on most points; Akok did not appeal the intoxication conviction.
     Akok and Jok deserve new trials because of the prosecutor’s appeal to jurors’ emotions, according to the two rulings it handed down last week.
     “The statement suggested to the jurors that they had a duty to protect N.C., or perhaps women generally, from defendant and the codefendant,” Judge Gregory Orme wrote for the court. “And it suggested that an acquittal would allow defendant and the codefendant to take advantage of N.C. or other women again. In other words, the statement called on the jury to ‘assume the responsibility of ensuring [N.C.’s] safety.'”
     Orme said the statement violated precedent from Utah v. Wright, a case in which an attorney closed his rebuttal in closing arguments: “You have the power to make that [the abuse] stop.”
     As determined in Wright, such statements “divert the jury’s attention from its legal duty to impartially apply the law to the facts,” Orme said.
     “Accordingly, we conclude that the prosecutor’s statement was improper and called the jurors’ attention to matters they were not justified in considering in reaching their verdict.”
     The Akok ruling mentions that a trial court offered only a “watered-down admonition” after the prosecutor’s improper remark.
     Per Utah v. Troy, Orme said, the court was required to give curative instruction admonishing the jury to “dispassionately consider and weigh the evidence” and instructing them “not to consider the statements of counsel as evidence,” Orme said.
     The partial admonition offered did not significantly vary from general instructions the trial court gave the jury both before both the trial and closing arguments, Orme said, and did not explicitly call jurors’ attention to the attorney’s closing statement.
     “We conclude that the trial court’s watered-down admonition did not adequately cure the prejudicial effect of the prosecutor’s improper statement and that defendant was prejudiced by the remark,” the ruling states.
     The ruling emphasizes that the trial at hand relied heavily on N.C.’s testimony that Akok raped her.
     With Akok denying the allegation, there was not “overwhelming proof” of his guilt, Orme added.
     “In this case, the jury could have gone either way based on the evidence presented at trial,” the ruling states. “Thus, there is a ‘greater likelihood’ that the jury was influenced by the prosecutor’s improper statement.”
     Prosecuting attorneys and defense counsel did not respond to requests for comment.

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