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Ill. prosecutor’s racial remarks prompt new trial

Published: Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013 11:33 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS – An Illinois appeals court has ordered a new trial for a black man sentenced to the maximum punishment of 85 years in prison in a 2010 shooting death, ruling a longtime prosecutor’s racially charged arguments to the all-white jury amounted to “naked prejudice.”

The 5th District Appellate Court on Friday threw out Marcus Marshall’s 2011 conviction, declaring that Williamson County State’s Attorney Charles Garnati’s racial references that included “our white world” were frequent and unjustified in a killing where race wasn’t a factor.

“The state’s use of race was an egregious and consistent theme throughout the trial,” according to the Mount Vernon-based court’s seven-page ruling favoring Marshall, 33. “Even if the prosecutor had made only one reference to race, such reference would fall within a category that our courts have previously found to be in plain error. That there were multiple instances of such racial prejudice is all the more reason to warrant a new trial for Marshall.”

During Marshall’s trial on charges that he killed LaQuinn Hudson, who also was black, at a 2010 house party, Garnati told jurors he didn’t want to generalize about blacks who make up roughly 4 percent of the overwhelmingly white, 18,000-resident city of Marion.

But the appellate court suggested Garnati ran afoul during his opening statement, when he tried to bolster the believability of two key prosecution witnesses who had recanted their initial statements to police implicating Marshall before they ultimately testified.

“Now, in our white world, ladies and gentlemen, our automatic reaction in that type of situation, if somebody gives a statement to the police and then later on changes their story, the automatic response would be that person is not truthful and there is a problem with their credibility,” Garnati said.

The appeals court appeared to take special issue with Garnati’s contrasting the “black community” with “our white world.”

“Ignoring, for a moment, the extremely racially prejudicial comparison that the prosecutor introduced when he said that statement, the prosecutor cannot create an ‘us versus them’ argument during closing argument and effectively make himself a thirteenth member of the jury,” the 5th District wrote.

Though Marshall’s attorney did not voice an objection to Garnati’s remarks, the appellate court found “we cannot say that the jury did not consider these improper and inflammatory remarks when reaching its verdict.”

“The error was substantial, and we have found plain error for less-flagrant remarks from a prosecutor,” the appellate court added.

Garnati does not have a listed home telephone number and could not be reached for comment Saturday. But he has downplayed the furor over his questioned comments, telling The Associated Press last year that “I spoke thousands of words during that trial, and a couple of sentences have been taken out of context.”

Garnati, noting he has prosecuted dozens of murder trials, dismissed any insinuation that he was racist and said it’s not uncommon for attorneys to question later “whether we could have said things more artfully.”

Marshall’s trial attorney, Thomas Mansfield, did not immediately return a telephone message left Saturday by the AP at his home in Murphysboro, Ill.

Mansfield told the AP last year his occasional objections about Garnati’s remarks were rejected by the trial judge, and that he resisted subsequent protests for strategic reasons.

“All of my objections were overruled, and at some point you don’t want to turn the jury off by objecting too often,” Mansfield has said.

Marshall’s new trial date has not been set.

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