The Supreme Court of Ohio recently ruled that prosecutors violated a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial when they made an unconventional decision to seat the alleged victim at the prosecutor’s table.
In a 4-3 decision from June 30, 2022, the Court held that the state committed “structural error” when it allowed the victim to remain at the table with the designation as the state’s representative, that the error could have misled jurors into believing the prosecutor was the alleged victim’s counsel, and that the “unconventional act” eroded the defendant’s right to be presumed innocent.
The ruling stems from the case Ohio v. Montgomery, a matter in which the defendant Mr. Montgomery had pleaded not guilty to kidnapping and rape charges after arguing that a sexual encounter between he and the alleged victim was consensual.
During jury selection, the state moved to allow the alleged victim to sit at counsel’s table with the assistant prosecutor and stated its intent to designate the alleged victim as the state’s representative, which would allow her to remain at the table with the assistant prosecutor through the trial.
The trial judge permitted the request over the objection of Mr. Montgomery’s counsel, who argued that alleged victim’s presence at the table would be prejudicial. Though the judge stated she would further research the issue so as not to create prejudicial conditions, the issue was not revisited during the trial and the alleged victim was introduced to jurors as the state’s representative.
Mr. Montgomery was convicted by the jury following three days of trial and was subsequently sentenced to two 10-year terms to be served concurrently. He appealed the verdict to the Fifth District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court’s decision, before appealing to the Supreme Court of Ohio.
Supreme Court Ruling: Seating Victim at Table Violated Defendant’s Rights
Writing for the majority, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Melody Stewart stated that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial and that said right is applicable to defendants in state criminal cases under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Court went on to note that the First District Court of Appeals erred in allowing the alleged victim’s table seating under “Marsy’s Law,” a provision of the Ohio Constitution that entitles victims of crime to be present “at all public criminal proceedings of the accused,” on the basis that the right does not entitle the victim to sit at the prosecutor’s table.
It also stated that the Fifth District erred in its permission of the seating decision under Rule 615(B) of the Ohio Rules of Evidence, which allows alleged victims to be present in a courtroom and for the state to select an officer or employee to be a “personal representative” who assists in the prosecution of trial and sits at counsel’s table. The Court clarified that because the alleged victim was not an officer or employee of the state, they did not qualify for designation as a representative under Rule 615(B).
Court Discusses Impact of Victim’s Seating
The Court’s majority opinion clarified that prosecutors represent the state in criminal matters and are not attorneys for alleged victims. By seating the alleged victim at counsel’s table, the Court held, the jury could be misled into believing that both the alleged victim and the defendant are seated with their respective attorneys, and that such an arrangement could erode the defendant’s presumption of innocence.
“As we established in Lane, this court must be vigilant to ward against scenarios that undermine a jury’s impartiality, erode the presumption of innocence, and allow for a setting that transmits too great an impression of guilt and that offends due process as fundamentally unfair because of the inherent potential for prejudice. The scenario at issue in this case triggers these factors.”
As noted by Criminal Defense Attorney Brad Koffel, the Court’s ruling, which resulted in Mr. Montgomery’s verdict being vacated and remanded to the lower court for a new trial, was an important victory for criminal defendants across the state:
“This is a very, very bold decision by the four liberal justices of the Ohio Supreme Court and an exceptionally well written decision by Justice Melody Stewart. The rights of the accused citizen should always be upheld on close calls like this one.”
Read more about the ruling here.