Illinois Appellate Court Finds Prosecutor’s Comparison of Juvenile Defendant to WWII-Era Nazis “deeply troubling”

An unnamed Cook County prosecutor has been sharply reprimanded for comparing a defendant’s lack-of-accountability defense to claims by Nazis during the Nuremberg trials.

A 17-year-old boy was convicted of first-degree murder for driving a companion to a murder scene. The companion exited the car, shot a person to death, and then returned to the car. The Illinois Appellate Court reversed the boy’s conviction based on lack of evidence that he knew his companion was armed and intended to shoot someone.

Justice Robert E. Gordon, writing for the Court, additionally addressed offensive and inappropriate comments by the prosecutor in closing argument: “The State inflamed the passions and prejudices of the jury when it compared defendant to the Nazis, and claimed that his defense was no different than those who were tried in Nuremberg for crimes against humanity. In all of history, there was hardly a more heinous group than the Nazis. By invoking the Nuremberg trials of Nazis, the State drew a comparison between defendant and war criminals that were tried for the worst atrocities in modern human history. This type of conduct has no place in the courtroom. We want to emphasize that this is not conduct we would want to see again.”

(See People v. Anthony Johnson, pp. 60-61.)

This is not the first time a prosecutor has invoked Nazi Germany in an effort to convict a defendant despite questionable evidence of guilt. During a 1995 trial, former McLean County Assistant State’s Attorney James Souk compared Alan Beaman to Hitler. Beaman served 13 years in prison before he was exonerated of murdering his ex-girlfriend and declared innocent by the court.

(See Pantagraph article: Alan Beaman declared innocent.)

Souk was never penalized for his actions in wrongfully prosecuting Beaman. Will the Cook County prosecutor who made the “Nazi” comments at Anthony Johnson’s trial be disciplined? Such tactics risk wrongful conviction by diverting the jury from its proper function of evaluating the evidence offered at trial. Elected State’s Attorneys are responsible for properly training their assistants and for imposing consequences when members of their office stray this far from proper conduct at trial.

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