A state appellate court last week reversed a 2014 San Luis Obispo Superior Court trial conviction of a Cambria man on charges of child molestation, ruling that the prosecutor “misstated the law” about the man’s presumption of innocence to jurors during her closing arguments.
Ronald John Cowan, 60, was convicted in August 2014 of charges of sodomy, oral copulation and lewd acts with a child. He was sentenced to 65 years to life in state prison and has been serving his sentence at Kern Valley State Prison, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The appellate court did not take issue with the merits of the prosecutor’s case and called the evidence against Cowan strong. The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office will likely retry the case.
Cowan was arrested in 2012 for allegedly molesting the son of a girlfriend over a period of about two years when the boy was between the ages of 3 and 5.
Cowan became a trusted grandfather-like figure to the boy and won the family’s trust with gifts and cash after the boy’s mother became addicted to drugs and was incarcerated, said a District Attorney’s Office statement filed with the court in 2014.
On Thursday, California’s Second District Court of Appeals found that San Luis Obispo Deputy District Attorney Kelly Manderino’s “win-at-all-costs strategy pushed this case over the precipice of reversal.”
It is misconduct to misinform the jury that the presumption of innocence is ‘gone’ prior to the jury’s deliberations.
California Second Appellate District ruling filed Feb. 23
“The prosecutor achieves a victory at trial, but it was a pyrrhic victory,” the ruling reads. “The gain of a conviction at trial led to a loss on appeal.”
According to the ruling, in Manderino’s rebuttal to the defense’s closing arguments — the final arguments the jury hears before going into deliberations — the prosecutor offered jurors a “grossly inaccurate” explanation of Cowan’s presumption of innocence.
“In rebuttal, during closing argument, the prosecutor told the jury, ‘Let me tell you that presumption (of innocence) is over. Because that presumption is in place only when the charges are read. But now you have heard all the evidence. That presumption is gone,’ ” the ruling reads. “She buttressed this grossly inaccurate explanation of reasonable doubt with the erroneous statement that the jury’s decision regarding (Cowan’s) guilt is just an ordinary decision people make ‘a hundred times a day.’ ”
“It is misconduct to misinform the jury that the presumption of innocence is ‘gone’ prior to the jury’s deliberations. It strikes at the very heart of our system of criminal justice,” the ruling reads.
The court said that using such tactics lightens the prosecutor’s burden of proof and “threatens the integrity of our system of justice.”
The court also wrote that Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy would have been “well-advised” to inform the jury that Manderino had misstated the law and to rely instead on their jury instructions when considering reasonable doubt.
Trying cases carries risks, including the risk that your decisions made ‘in the heat of battle’ will be scrutinized carefully at a later time.
San Luis Obispo County Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham
Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham on Monday took issue with the ruling and said he anticipates his office will refile charges against Cowan.
“With respect to the ruling, most prosecutors find it necessary to discuss the concept of the presumption of innocence in their closing arguments, but it has always been a mine field that the appellate courts seem to scrutinize very closely,” he said.
Asked about whether Manderino faces discipline, Cunningham said that a ruling of this nature requires reporting to the California State Bar, but the rules regarding arguments on issues such as reasonable doubt are “not well-defined,” he said.
Still, Cunningham defended his deputy prosecutor.
“Trying cases carries risks, including the risk that your decisions made ‘in the heat of battle’ will be scrutinized carefully at a later time,” he said.
Jeff Radding, Cowan’s defense attorney at the trial, commented on the appeals court’s decision Monday night.
“The issue upon which the Appellate Court’s decision turned is an important but fine point of law, the parameters and significance of which are very often at issue, and very often reflect a gray hue,” Radding said. “I think this is underscored by the appellate history of the case: the Court of Appeal first ruled, in an opinion certified for publication, that the issue did not affect the outcome of the trial and did not rise to a level of ‘error’ requiring reversal. Appellate counsel then asked the California Supreme Court to take a look at the matter, and the Supreme Court, without actually taking the case, asked the Court of Appeal to consider the case again in the context of the Centeno opinion. The Court of Appeal did, and in doing so issued last week’s opinion, contrary to its first decision. Similarly, even in trial the creation of this issue reflected its inherent complexity, and involved everyone.
“Prosecutor Kelly Manderino is a fine, skilled lawyer, and Judge Jacquelyn Duffy is a fine, skilled judge, and still the issue led to differing thoughts and approaches as it arose. The Court of Appeal, at the suggestion of the California Supreme Court, has now had the final say. In the midst of competition, these things do happen.”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is awaiting a court order for Cowan’s release, said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the agency. Thorton said there are several possibilities about how and where Cowan could be released.
“It’s hard to speculate on that right now,” she said.