Judges Quarrel About Counsel’s Silence During Prosecutor’s PowerPoint Summation
Recently, the New York Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction of a defendant accused of killing her husband’s one-year-old daughter, although she had claimed that her counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the prosecution’s questionable PowerPoint presentation during summation. People v. Santiago, NY Slip Op 01261 (2014). At trial, the prosecution claimed that the defendant, Cheryl Santiago, had suffocated her husband’s child after becoming frustrated that the child would not fall asleep. Id. at *5. An expert witness for the prosecution testified that it would have taken the defendant approximately four to six minutes to suffocate the child by using her hand to cover the child’s mouth and nose. Id. at *6.
In summation, the prosecutor presented to the jury a six minute PowerPoint presentation that consisted of a series of slides using a postmortem photograph of the child. Alluding to the expert’s opinion regarding the amount of time it took for the child to suffocate, the prosecutor suggested to the jury that “if there’s any question in your mind how long six minutes take, take a look at this.” Id. at *7. Without objection from defense counsel, the prosecutor proceeded to play the PowerPoint slides, “with each successive slide progressively fading, until the final slide was entirely white, thus eliminating the image of the [child].” Id. Notably, some of the slides also contained captions that described the child’s deteriorating medical condition –stating that at one and a half to two minutes- “struggle ends;” four minutes- “brain death occurs;” and four and a half to six minutes –“cardiac death.” Id.
The Court rejected the defendant’s claim that trial counsel was infective for failing to object to the PowerPoint presentation, noting that counsel’s lapse was not a “clear-cut” or “dispositive” omission. Id. at *13. The Court observed that a postmortem photograph itself was properly admitted at trial, and that “[t]he slides depicting an already admitted photograph, with captions accurately tracking prior medical testimony, might reasonably be regarded as relevant and fair, albeit dramatic, commentary on the medical evidence, and not simply an appeal to the jury’s emotions.”Id.
The Court did note that it did not know how the PowerPoint presentation aided the jury in its fact-finding function, or how it was relevant to the cause of the child’s death. Id. Furthermore, the Court also observed that the defendant’s failure to make a timely objection to the PowerPoint’s admission –which would have required the trial court to rule on its admissibility- precluded the Court to extend its inquiry further as to whether the trial court abused its discretion and that such error required a reversal of the judgment of conviction. Id. at *14. In noting this observation, however, the Court implicitly suggested that its inquiry of the matter was cut short due to counsel’s failure (i.e. ineffective assistance of counsel) –and, by its own admission, an objection would have placed the trial court in an unlikely situation of finding that the PowerPoint evidence had any probative value, and even if so, that its value outweighed its prejudicial impact. Id. at *15 (conceding that the Powerpoint failed to “aid the jury in its fact-finding function”).
In dissent, Judge Rivera observed that the PowerPoint presentation had manipulated the evidence and was “designed to inflame the passion of the jury in order to engender prejudice against the defendant.” Id. at 1 (dissent, j. Rivera). She concluded that the Court had erred in not finding that counsel’s failure to object to the PowerPoint presentation had amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel. She noted that counsel’s lapse permitted the prosecution to taint the jury’s deliberative process –which denied the defendant a fair trial. Id. at (“The prosecutor’s use of this Powerpoint imagery was an impermissible attempt to secure a verdict based on emotion and repulsion for the defendant, rather than facts.”).
Judge Rivera was also extremely troubled by the inflammatory nature of the Powerpoint, noting that “[a]ny doubts as to the emotional responses engendered by the presentation are easily dispelled by viewing the slide show, wherein the picture of a 21 month old child, in her pink pajamas, with white froth on her lips, her body prone and lifeless, is projected over and over, fading slightly with each slide, until all that remains is a white background and the memory of her tiny body. One simply cannot be but moved by this depiction.” Id. at 3.
Notably, the ever-changing dynamics of courtroom advocacy due to the technological advances in “trial presentation” software may continue to cause issues for criminal defendants when utilized in an improper fashion by prosecutors. Although such technology can provide each party a better, faster and clearer way of presenting information than conventional trial form, it can also lead the jury away from “the four corners of the evidence” and hinder the truth seeking process. Hopefully, the courts will use caution when allowing evidence to be presented in an unconventional format, and take consideration of the fact that a juror may become more occupied with the entertainment value of the presentation rather than the relevance of the information being conveyed.
- People v. Caldavado, 78 AD 3d 962 (2nd Dept. 2010) (permitting a “PowerPoint presentation as to the injuries associated with shaken baby syndrome and in allowing an expert witness to shake a doll in order to demonstrate the force necessary to inflict shaken baby syndrome.”).
People v. Yates, 290 AD 2d 888 (3rd Dept. 2002) (finding no error in the presentation of a computer-generated video demonstrating the mechanics of “shaken baby syndrome.”).