State v. Criswell

State v. Criswell, 2013 MT 177 (July 2, 2013) (7-0) (McKinnon, J.; McGrath, C.J., concurring)

Issue: (1) Whether the State presented sufficient evidence to convict Criswells of aggravated animal cruelty, and (2) whether the district court abused its discretion in denying Criswells’ motion for a mistrial.

Short Answer: (1) Yes, and (2) no.


Facts: Criswells operated an animal rescue operation in Idaho for several years, handling hundreds of cats. Eventually, the operation was shut down and Criswells moved to Montana with a number of their cats. In December 2010, they had 116 cats. They had no money, no car, no fuel, no food, and were snowed in. They were charged with confining the animals in a cruel manner and/or failing to provide sufficient food and water to the cats.

Procedural Posture & Holding: In closing arguments, the prosecutor referred to the Criswells’ home as a “squatters’ camp” and called the Criswells “professional freeloaders.” He asserted the Criswells had been “run out of” Idaho for animal abuse, and implied they spent money on medical marijuana rather than on food for their cats. Criswells moved for a mistrial on the basis of these remarks.

The district court found the remarks improper, but also found they did not prejudice the Criswells and so denied the motion. The jury convicted Criswells of aggravated animal cruelty. They appeal, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: (1) Criswells argue that the state failed to carry its burden in proving that the defendants acted “without justification” in their treatment of the cats. § 45-8-211, MCA. The Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force director advised Criswells to contact the Humane Society in Billings, as it would be able to take a large number of cats. Edwin Criswell did not do this. A witness testified that the Criswells were hungry, thin, dirty, and cold. Several witnesses testified that the Criswells’ living situation was uninhabitable for people and animals. Nearly all of the 116 animals had a medical issue. The Task Force, which cared for the cats after they were removed from Criswells’ care, testified it took 20 volunteer hours a day, 25 pounds of cat food per day, and 210 pounds of cat litter per week to care for the cats, at a cost of about $175 a week. Additionally, the executive director of the Idaho Humane Society testified that he had observed similar problems with the Criswells in Idaho in 2005. The state presented sufficient evidence to support a finding that Criswells’ mistreatment of the cats was “without justification.”

After the jury retired to deliberate, Criswells moved for a mistrial on the grounds that the prosecutor had tainted the jury by offering inadmissible character evidence and improper personal opinions regarding Criswells’ credibility and culpability. They argued that a curative instruction was insufficient to remedy the taint. The district court applied the proper two-part test: first, were the prosecutor’s comments improper, and second, did the comments prejudice the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Prejudice must be assessed in the context of the entire trial. The district court found the remarks were improper, but had not prejudiced Criswells’ right to a fair trial. The Court finds that the district court did not abuse its discretion in reaching this conclusion.

Chief Justice McGrath’s Concurrence: The chief justice writes separately to emphasize the serious nature of that he believes to be the prosecutor’s misconduct. There is little question that the proceedings were conducted fairly. “The fact that we affirm the Criswells’ convictions, however, does not mean that we condone or tolerate the prosecutor’s improper remarks.” ¶ 54. The chief justice reviews the ABA Standards for Criminal Justice, which state that “[t]he prosecutor should not make arguments calculated to appeal to the prejudices of the jury.” ¶ 55. “Although the prosecutor’s comments were not grounds for mistrial in this case, it must be emphasized that this type of conduct is not to be tolerated.” ¶ 57.