June 27, 2011

Colorado Supreme Court 6-27-11 - criminal law - People v. Santana

People v. Santana            Burden Shifting
Facts: Mr. Santana did not understand the target demographic for his product, and chose poorly. Thus, Mr. Santana called out to an undercover cop whether he wanted any ‘dope’ - crack. The undercover cop, of course, said sure, and Mr. Santana sold the cop some dope. No one conducted definitive tests on the substance. The prosecution only called the undercover cop and submitted a lab report that claimed the substance to be crack. No lab analyst for the state testified to the contents of the actual report (an error not addressed in the appeal. See Bullcoming v. New Mexico) Nevertheless, a jury convicted Mr. Santana, but the Court of Appeals reversed his conviction. The CofA held that the prosecutor in questioning the defense expert and in closing argument shifted the burden to the defense. The defense expert testified about the drugs – crack. On cross-examination of the defense expert, the prosecution asked the expert if he had the capability to do independent testing on the crack. Answer: yes. The prosecution asked him if given the opportunity whether the expert would have tested the drugs? Answer: yes. Finally, the prosecution asked the expert if he had tested the substance, whether his tests would definitively conclude whether the substance was indeed crack. Answer: yes. According to the Court the prosecution argument went accordingly, “In his closing argument, the prosecutor told the jury that they should not consider closing arguments as evidence, and then proceeded to discuss the evidence in the case, including the defense’s expert witness’s testimony. The prosecutor compared the evidence offered by the prosecution with the evidence offered by the defense’s expert, stating that all the expert did in this case was to review two documents and say that the substance ‘wasn’t absolutely cocaine.’ The expert ‘didn’t tell you about any analysis he did. He didn’t tell you about whether he spoke to’ the undercover officer or chemist who ran the tests.”
Issue: Whether the prosecution through cross-examination of the defense expert and in closing argument improperly shifted the burden?
Held: No.
Reasoning: The Court unanimously held the prosecution did not shift the burden. Justice Martinez wrote the decision. The Court came up with a three-part test to determine if the prosecution improperly shifted the burden. The Court wrote:
When assessing the strength of the prosecutions burden-shifting actions and whether they have shifted the burden of proof, courts mainly consider the degree to which:
(1) the prosecutor specifically argued or intended to establish that the defendant carried the burden of proof;
(2) the prosecutors actions constituted a fair response to the questioning and comments of defense counsel; and
(3) the jury is informed by counsel and the court about the defendants presumption of innocence and the prosecutions burden of proof.
The Court simply reasoned that based upon the totality of the record, the prosecution rebutted the defense implication, and never explicitly argued that the defense had any burden of proof. The Court wrote:
Indeed, close examination of the entire record shows that the prosecutors questions and comments were likely not designed to imply that the defendant bore the burden of proof, but were instead aimed at: (1) clarifying the defenses expert witnesss testimony; (2) rebutting the implications -- raised by the defense -- that the prosecution failed to offer conclusive test results because those results would exonerate the defendant; and (3) highlighting the strength of the prosecutions case.”


  1. This is sad, but still, good to know. Thanks for the excellent summary of this case, Mr. Sims!

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  3. Thank you for your story. I am a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Denver and you do a great job of describing the feelings and pace of trial. Anyone thinking about criminal law should read this post.


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