Washington Supreme Court Reverses for Prejudicial PowerPoint

The Washington Supreme Court has reversed the conviction of Odies Walker after a Pierce County prosecutor used prejudicial PowerPoint slides during his closing argument. The court found these slides violated the defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial.

In Walker, the State of Washington charged the defendant with murder, assault, and robbery. The prosecution’s case theory was that Walker’s greed spurred him to commit murder.

During closing arguments in Pierce County Superior Court, the prosecutor presented a PowerPoint consisting of 250 slides. Almost half the slides included the heading “DEFENDANT WALKER GUILTY OF PREMEDITATED MURDER.” One slide showed the words “GUILTY BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT” over Walker’s booking photo. The words were in bright red.

Another group of slides implied that Walker was guilty because he used the stolen money to buy dinner at Red Lobster and purchased a Wii and videogames. One of these slides was titled “MONEY MORE IMPORTANT THAN HUMAN LIFE” and displayed a picture of Walker with his family at Red Lobster.

Anyone on trial for a heinous crime is vulnerable to this kind of PowerPoint abuse. Persons accused of rape and child molestation, for example, could be subjected to this kind of over-reaching by a prosecutor.

Walker’s trial attorney did not object to any of the slides described above.

On appeal, Walker argued that the use of these slides violated his right to a fair trial. In Washington, when a defendant argues that prosecutor misconduct violated this right, he must prove that the prosecution’s conduct was improper and prejudicial.

The Washington Supreme Court agreed that the slides were prejudicial. It described the role of the prosecutor as a “representative of the people in a quasi-judicial capacity in a search for justice.” The court stated that when prosecutors violate a defendant’s right to a fair trial, they “undermine the integrity of our entire criminal justice system.” A prosecutor must “‘subdue courtroom zeal,’ not add to it.”

A prosecutor cannot express his personal opinions on the defendant’s guilt, the court noted. It found the prosecution “committed serious misconduct” here because “it suggested to the jury that Walker should be convicted because he is a callous and greedy person who spent the robbery proceeds on video games and lobster.”

The court acknowledged that PowerPoint presentations may be used in closing argument, and that use of such media can be good advocacy. However, the court described the PowerPoint here as “flagrant, pervasive, and prejudicial.” It therefore reversed Walker’s conviction and remanded for a new trial.