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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

No new trial where state's transcript was erroneous

The Minnesota Supreme Court recently ruled that where an incorrect transcript of a statement the defendant made to police was introduced at trial, the defendant is nevertheless not entitled to a new trial in the interests of justice. The case, State v. Green, was handed down last week.

The case involved a particularly nasty issue -- whether a father improperly touched his 4-year-old daughter when he was helping her clean up after swimming in a lake. The jury, which ultimately convicted the defendant of both first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct -- had received a transcript of the defendant's alleged conversation with police. According to the transcript, in response to the question, "Where did you put your fingers?" the defendant replied: “I suppose in.” Later the defense argued that the statement was “I suppose um.”

What’s disturbing is that the state conceded the transcript was erroneous, but argued that it was the defendant’s fault that it went in. The defendant was originally only charged with second degree criminal sexual conduct, which didn’t require penetration, so the defense attorney didn’t focus on that statement.

The court determined that the interests of justice didn’t require a new trial, essentially because there was other persuasive evidence against the defendant. (The court also noted the defense had use of the tape of the interview with police.)

Justice Paul Anderson, joined in dissent by Justice Helen Meyer, wondered what could be a stronger case for a new trial “in the interests of justice” than this one, where “the state’s transcription error changed a meaningless utterance into a confession of the defining element of the crime.”

A new trial would be expensive, but other than that I can’t see the downside of granting it. The burden to the state is a small price to pay to ensure a fair trial. And if the other evidence against the defendant really is so compelling, the state shouldn’t be reluctant to retry the case.

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