Deck v. Jenkins

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Habeas Corpus
  • Date Filed: 09-29-2014
  • Case #: 13-55130
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Christen for the Court; Circuit Judges Thomas and Smith, Jr.
  • Full Text Opinion

Where a trial prosecutor in closing argument negated an essential element of intent under California law by “pushing defendant’s intent to commit a lewd act on a child under the age of 14 to potentially, ‘next week,’ or in ‘two weekends’ or to ‘just some point in the future’ it amounts to a constitutional trial error providing the basis for grave doubt as to whether the error had a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the jury’s verdict.

Stephen Deck was a lieutenant with the California Highway Patrol in 2006 when he began chatting online with a fictitious girl named “Amy”. Amy was a creation of the Laguna Beach Police Department in their sting operation to identify and arrest adults using the internet to meet minors for sex. The two exchanged in sexually suggestive messages and then decided to arrange a meeting in public. Deck made the 45 minute drive to meet Amy and was arrested when he arrived. Deck was charged and convicted of attempt to commit a lewd or lascivious act upon a child. The prosecution had to prove (1) an intent to arouse, appeal to, or gratify the lust, passions, or sexual desires of the defendant or the child and (2) a direct if possibly ineffectual step toward that goal. Attempt requires a direct movement toward the commission after the preparations are made. During his closing argument, the prosecutor misstated the law when he indicated that he did not have to prove that Deck was going to engage in a lewd act the day that he met Amy, but “just some point in the future”. The California Court of Appeal concluded that the misstatements were not prejudicial. To determine whether the misstatements were prejudicial, the panel used the rule from Darden which states; “whether the trial error amounts to a constitutional violation depends on the extent to which it renders the proceedings unfair.” The panel analyzed the surrounding facts of the case including the jury’s request for clarification as to the law on the issue. The court’s failure to answer the jury’s inquiry caused the panel grave doubt as to whether the error had a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the jury’s verdict as required by Darden. Due to that doubt the panel determined that the closing arguments confused the jury and no corrective instruction was given to correct the issue, nor was the jury’s request for clarification answered. REVERSED and REMANDED.

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