Prosecutor’s Use of Bloody, Vomit-Stained Mannequin Proper in Sentencing Phase of Murder Trial

By Evidence ProfBlogger 

Assume that a defendant is convicted of the first degree murder based upon fatally shooting a deputy sheriff. Would it be prosecutorial misconduct for the prosecutor during the sentencing phase of trial to use of life-sized mannequin of the deputy sheriff to demonstrate his injuries? That was the question addressed by the Supreme Court of California in its recent opinion in People v. Steskal, 2021 WL 1684072 (Cal. 2021).

In Steskal, the facts were as stated above, with Maurice Gerald Steskal being convicted of the first degree murder of Orange County Deputy Sheriff Bradley J. Riches. During the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor showed the jury

a life-sized mannequin dressed in Deputy Riches’s bloody uniform. There was vomit on the front shirt pocket and the dried blood blended in with the color of the uniform, which was dark green. Rods placed in the mannequin reflected the location and trajectory of bullet wounds. Ruling that the mannequin was admissible, the trial court observed that it was not going to “shock anybody’s sensibilities.” The prosecutor referred to the mannequin during the pathologist’s testimony to show the location of each wound as he described them. During his closing argument, the prosecutor brought the mannequin out to show the concentration of shots directed to the upper left chest area, highlighting the aggravated nature of the crime. When not in use during the testimony and closing argument, the mannequin was stored outside of the jury’s view and was not placed in the jury room during deliberations.

After being given a death sentence, Steskal appealed, claiming that “there was little probative value to the mannequin, given that the circumstances of the crime were not contested, and that the mannequin was prejudicial because it was ‘startlingly life-like’ and the condition of the uniform was ‘shocking.'” The Supreme Court of California disagreed, concluding thatThis argument is not persuasive; this court has repeatedly held that otherwise relevant evidence is not inadmissible simply because it is graphic or because it depicts uncontested facts….In Thomas, for instance, although the cause and circumstances of death were not in dispute, we upheld the guilt phase introduction of life-sized mannequins representing slain officers, as well as their blood- and tissue-stained clothing….The trial court in this case did not err when it admitted similar evidence in Steskal’s penalty retrial, a juncture in the proceedings when the constraints on its discretion to exclude the evidence were greater than they would have been in the guilt phase….We have long recognized that “[m]annequins may be used as illustrative evidence to assist the jury in understanding the testimony of witnesses or to clarify the circumstances of a crime”…and have “rejected challenges to the prosecution’s use of mannequins to represent victims during the presentation of aggravating evidence”…We have similarly upheld the admission of a victim’s stained clothing to show the circumstances of the crime…as well as the admission of photographs and videotape portraying actual victims in death…We conclude the trial court acted within its discretion in finding that the probative value of the mannequin was not substantially outweighed by the risk of undue prejudice. “Consistent with our holding in People v. Medina (1990) 51 Cal.3d 870, 898–899 [274 Cal.Rptr. 849, 799 P.2d 1282] — a case where the prosecution entered into evidence a mannequin wearing a victim’s bloodstained shirt — we find that ‘[t]he trial court was in a far better position than we to assess the potential prejudice arising from the display of such physical evidence.’ Upon the record before us, we see no basis to upset its decision”…and conclude there was no violation of Steskal’s federal constitutional rights.

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