A 48-year-old Little Valley man’s conviction for rape and unlawful imprisonment two years ago has been overturned by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court for prosecutorial misconduct.
The first-degree rape and first-degree unlawful imprisonment convictions of Robert G. Case were unanimously reversed by the Fourth Judicial Department in Rochester.
A Cattaraugus County Court jury returned the convictions on March 16, 2015. County Court Judge Ronald Ploetz later sentenced Case to 15 years in state prison. As of Friday, he remained incarcerated at the Attica Correctional Facility.
A new trial is granted on the rape and unlawful imprisonment charges, which the justices “reversed on the law and as a matter of discretion in the interest of justice.”
The appellate justices dismissed two other convictions, second-degree assault and second-degree strangulation, but said the district attorney could re-present the second count to a new grand jury.
The justices said the evidence did not support the felony assault or strangulation convictions.
The jury in the case had acquitted Case on two other charges, second-degree burglary and third-degree burglary.
The charges stemmed from allegations that Case held a woman against her will, strangled and raped her on Jan. 31, 2014, in the town of New Albion.
First Assistant District Attorney Amber Kerling “engaged in misconduct during her closing statement by repeatedly appealing to the jury’s sympathy, by asking the jury to do justice and protect the victim by convicting the defendant, bolstering the victim’s credibility and injecting the prosecutor’s personal opinions into the trial,” the decision states
“Perhaps most egregiously, in arguing that the jury should reject defendant’s testimony that he confessed falsely to the police because he needed to use the bathroom, the prosecutor gave her personal opinion regarding the defendant’s credibility by stating that she would sit in her own urine rather than falsely admit she had committed a crime,” according to the decision.
“We can only conclude that the prosecutor’s inflammatory [comments had] a decided tendency to prejudice the jury against the defendant,” the justices wrote, adding the misconduct “requires reversal.”
Rieman said “we’re very disappointed” in the court’s decision overturning the rape and unlawful imprisonment counts. The district attorney said in an interview with the Olean Times Herald that “it’s sometimes a fine line” in summation.
“Usually the defense lawyer objects,” she said. “We felt it was a fair comment. The judges obviously disagreed. … Sometimes in the heat of battle, you don’t have time to second-guess yourself. Amber’s a great prosecutor. She’s very ethical. Any time she is concerned about ethics, she comes to me. We have a high standard and work very hard to abide by that standard.”
Rieman said she expects Case will be returned to Cattaraugus County Court very soon on the pending indictment on the two remaining charges, first-degree rape and unlawful imprisonment.
She added she had not decided whether to re-present the second-degree strangulation charge to a second grand jury.
“The rape is the main charge,” Rieman said.
After an initial appearance in County Court, the district attorney’s office will meet in conference with Case’s attorney to “pick a trial date or discuss whether we will be able to resolve it or not.”
In their decision, the justices also said they agreed with the defendant’s contention “that he was denied effective assistance of counsel owing to defense counsel’s failure to object to the prosecutor’s misconduct during summation.”
Olean attorney Jay Carr was assigned to the case after the Public Defender’s Office indicated it had a conflict.
“Apparently the Appellate Department didn’t like the trial strategy I used,” Carr told the Olean Times Herald. “It was a difficult case, as rape cases almost always are.”