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Name: People v. Cowan
Case #: B258587
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 2 DCA
Division: 6
Opinion Date: 02/23/2017

Prosecutor’s inaccurate explanation of reasonable doubt requires reversal of defendant’s conviction. Defendant was tried by a jury on various sex-related charges. During closing argument, the prosecutor told the jury that the presumption of innocence was “gone” and is in place only up to the time the charges are read. Defendant objected that the prosecutor was misstating the law. The trial court told the jury “this is argument,” and cautioned the jury only to consider the court’s instructions. Defendant was convicted of the sex offenses and sentenced to 65 years to life in prison. After his conviction was affirmed on appeal, the California Supreme Court granted review and transferred the case to the Court of Appeal with instructions to vacate its decision and reconsider the case in light of People v. Centeno (2014) 60 Cal.4th 659. Held: Reversed. In Centeno, the court determined that a prosecutor committed misconduct during closing argument by using an inaccurate map of California to explain the concept of reasonable doubt. It is improper for a prosecutor to misstate the law in an attempt to lighten the prosecution’s burden of proof. The presumption of innocence continues during the taking of testimony and during jury deliberations until the jury reaches a verdict. “It is misconduct to misinform the jury that the presumption of innocence is ‘gone’ prior to the jury’s deliberations.” The prosecutor’s presentation here directly contradicted the court’s instructions on proof beyond a reasonable doubt and it was the last explanation of reasonable doubt that the jury heard. After analyzing Centeno, the Court of Appeal concluded the prosecutor’s misconduct prejudiced defendant and that reversal was required. The court also determined that other statements did not require reversal.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: