Was an Upstate Prosecutor's PowerPoint Presentation Too Emotional for Trial?

Categories: Courts

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New York State Court of Appeals in Albany.
In 2008, Cheryl Santiago, stood trial, accused of suffocating her 22-month step-daughter to death. During closing arguments, the Dutchess County prosecutor showed the jury a PowerPoint presentation. It ran six minutes--the length of time it would have taken to suffocate the baby, according to a doctor's testimony. During those six minutes, jurors saw a series of slides, each showing the same photo of the child's dead body, each faded a bit more than the last until the final slide was completely white. Santiago's defense lawyer did not object. The jury found her guilty of second degree murder and the judge sentenced her to 22-years-to-life in prison.

But was the PowerPoint too emotional for a courtroom?

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The question reached the state's highest court recently. As part of her appeal, Santiago claimed that she received ineffective legal representation, citing her lawyer's inaction during the PowerPoint. On Tuesday, the New York Court of Appeals released its decision, a 5-2 split.

Judge Eugene Pigott wrote the opinion upholding the conviction and Judge Jenny Rivera wrote the opinion siding with Santiago. Their disagreement ultimately hinged on whether the use of PowerPoint was so unfair that the defense attorney violated professional standards by not objecting.

"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," wrote Rivera. "Although this exercise in adversarial oratory need not be dispassionate in delivery, and counsel may choose to employ various linguistic and rhetorical devices, the prosecutor cannot redirect the fact-finder's deliberative process from the evidence by playing on emotion."

To Pigott, however, the presentation did not elicit an arbitrary emotional plea, but instead sought to make an argument based on evidence:

"The 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," he wrote. "The jury was being asked to decide not only whether defendant killed Justice, but also whether she intended to do so, an issue to which the question of how long she would have had to cover Justice's mouth and nose was certainly relevant."

Next: Santiago's crime and the court's ruling.

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