Just Say No to Commenting on the Defendant’s Failure to Testify

While a prosecutor in a criminal trial may comment on a defendant’s failure to produce witnesses or evidence to contradict or refute the State’s case, a prosecutor may not make any reference to or comment on a defendant’s failure to testify. Such remarks violate both a defendant’s federal and state constitutional rights not to be compelled to give self-incriminating evidence (see U.S. Const. Amend. V, N.C. Const. art. I, § 23) and G.S. 8-54, which provides that no person charged with a crime may be compelled to testify or “answer any question tending to criminate himself.” This rule rests on the notion that allowing extended reference by the court or counsel concerning the defendant’s failure to testify would “nullify the policy that failure to testify should not create a presumption against the defendant.” State v. Randolph, 312 N.C. 198, 206 (1984).

The prohibition against such remarks encompasses even those that parrot the pattern jury instructions by acknowledging that a defendant may elect not to testify and that such an election may not be used against him. See State v. Reid, 334 N.C. 551, 554 (1993). Thus, when a prosecutor makes such remarks and the defendant objects, the trial court must undertake curative measures to inform the jury both that the remarks were improper and that the defendant’s failure to testify may not be used against him. Id. at 556. If the trial court fails to take such remedial measures and an appellate court deems the error prejudicial, a new trial will be ordered. Id. at 557. The Court of Appeals applied these principles recently in State v. Grant, No. COA23-656, ___ N.C. App. ___ (2024).

Read more