Court says prosecutor's remarks 'unprofessional'

MUNISING, Mich. (AP) -- The Michigan Supreme Court has scolded an Upper Peninsula prosecutor as "simply unprofessional" for using derogatory terms to describe witnesses during the trial of a man who was convicted of killing his wife by pushing her off a cliff.

The court rejected Thomas Richardson's bid for a new trial. But the seven justices took the unusual step of criticizing the Alger County prosecutor, Karen Bahrman, for a variety of remarks during the 2008 proceedings, including calling a witness a "whore."

"This court has a long-held view that a prosecutor must exhibit a high ethical standard when presenting a case to the jury," justices said in a two-page order released last Thursday.

Richardson was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his 43-year-old wife, Juanita. Authorities say he was interested in another woman and intentionally pushed her off a cliff at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in 2006. He claimed she fell when he was returning from the bathroom.

The case received so much attention in the Upper Peninsula that the trial was moved to Schoolcraft County from Alger County. On appeal, Richardson's attorney, Christine Pagac, raised many objections to Bahrman's conduct in court.

Bahrman referred to a female psychiatrist as a "whore" because she was a paid witness for Richardson's defense. Hiring outside experts for trial is common for the prosecution and the defense. Another witness was called a "bottom feeder."

"Calling defense witnesses such names as 'whore' or 'bottom feeder' is simply unprofessional," the justices said. "Similarly, suggesting that the victim's children had betrayed (their mother) by testifying for their father, the defendant, was inappropriate."

The case against Richardson was circumstantial. Speaking to jurors, the prosecutor repeatedly mentioned planes hitting landmarks on 9/11 as an example of circumstantial evidence that terrorists were attacking the U.S. Bahrman also referred to other notorious crimes in the Upper Peninsula, and the case of California convicted killer Scott Peterson.

"Generally, less emotion-laden analogies will serve just as well in making a point," the Supreme Court said.

Bahrman, a prosecutor for nearly 30 years, said she has no regrets but probably would do some things "in a different way."

"After 6,000 pages of transcripts and that's what they come up with?" she said in reaction to the Supreme Court's statement. "I'm underwhelmed. ... I'm not devastated by this characterization. I appreciate what they're saying and will tailor future comments to try to comply. It's not a big blow."

Richardson's trial attorney, Karl Numinen, repeatedly objected to Bahrman's courtroom remarks, but the judge usually overruled him or simply instructed the jury to ignore what the prosecutor had said.

"There is no question in my mind that the inflammatory comments by the prosecutor denied my client the right to a fair trial," Numinen said last Thursday.

Published: Mon, Jun 6, 2011