Cumulative Error Analysis: Why Courts Need to Consider the Benefit Received by Opposing Party when Prejudicial Information is Presented

Stephany Rohleder, Staff Editor

State v. Taylor, No. 118,792, (Kan. Oct. 8, 2021).

Issue:  The Kansas Court of Appeals found five errors when Taylor appealed his criminal conviction.  Four errors were not reversible either collectively or individually.  Was the Kansas Court of Appeals correct in its cumulative error analysis that the four errors should not be reversed?

Answer:  No.  The prosecution benefited from the errors, and it failed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the cumulative effect of all the errors did not affect the outcome of Taylor’s trial.

Facts:  Taylor was stopped because he was in a “high drug traffic area” and a roll call bulletin stated Taylor had a gun and drugs.  An officer searched Taylor and found marijuana.  Taylor was arrested. According to the officers, Taylor physically resisted and even head-butted an officer.  Additionally, Taylor verbally threatened an officer at the jail.

Taylor’s motion to suppress the marijuana evidence as a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights was denied.  The jury convicted Taylor of marijuana possession, battery against a law enforcement officer, and making an intentional criminal threat. 

The Kansas Court of Appeals found five trial errors: denial of the motion to suppress, two in limine order violations, and two prosecution errors during closing argument.  Taylor petitioned the Kansas Supreme Court to review the Kansas Court of Appeals’ decision not to reverse four of the errors.

Discussion:  The Kansas Supreme Court found three errors in the cumulative error analysis.  The Kansas Court of Appeals failed to (1) consider the denial of the marijuana evidence, (2) apply the constitutional harmless error test, and (3) determine if the cumulative effect of the errors affected Taylor’s credibility.  The test is that “the party benefiting from the errors must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the errors’ cumulative effect did not affect the trial’s outcome.”  The prosecution must show defendant was not prejudiced by an overwhelming amount of evidence.  The prosecution did not meet this burden.

The jury considered Taylor’s credibility when convicting him of the battery and threat.  However, the admitted drug evidence undermined Taylor’s credibility.  The Kansas Supreme Court determined this evidence could have prevented Taylor from receiving a fair trial.  Compounding the drug evidence with the other four errors, the Kansas Court held Taylor’s right to a fair trial was prejudiced.  The Kansas Supreme Court reversed the remaining two convictions and remanded Taylor’s case for a new trial.

Key Authorities:

State v. Brinklow, 200 P.3d 1225 (Kan. 2009) (holding a trial may be warranted where cumulative effect of errors prejudices defendant’s ability to obtain a fair trial and where evidence against defendant is not overwhelming),

State v. Cosby, 169 P.3d 1128 (Kan. 2007) (holding the state’s case is not overwhelming when there was conflicting evidence on a “truly contested issue”),

State v. Brazzle, 466 P.3d 1195 (Kan. 2020) (identifying three types of prejudice that can arise from “other crimes and civil wrongs” evidence),

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