WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled today that the Constitution does not guarantee a capital defendant a "perfect trial," voting 5 to 4 that an accused murderer's rights were not violated when the prosecutor called him an animal.
The court, in an opinion by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., said a prosecutor's closing arguments did not so infect the trial with unfairness "as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process."
The ruling affirmed the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which had sustained the Florida conviction of Willie Jasper Darden, on Death Row for killing a businessman and molesting the victim's wife in a $15 holdup.
The case involved three issues affecting the imposition of the death penalty, including what standards should be used by lower courts for judging the effectiveness of defense counsel and prosecutorial misconduct.
Darden challenged remarks made by the prosecutor in closing arguments in which he offered his personal opinion of the evidence and the character of the defendant.
The prosecutor referred to Darden as an animal and said, "He shouldn't be out of his cell unless he has a leash on him and a prison guard at the other end of that leash."
The high court conceded the remarks were not appropriate, but found they did not deprive Darden of his right to an impartial trial.
"The prosecutor's argument did not manipulate or misstate the evidence, nor did it implicate other specific rights of the accused such as the right to counsel or the right to remain silent," Powell said.
"We agree with the (trial court) that 'Darden's trial was not perfect--few are--but neither was it fundamentally unfair."'
Rules in Other Matters
In other action, the court:
--Agreed to consider forcing Texaco Inc. to post a potentially ruinous $12-billion bond while appealing a multibillion-dollar judgment won in Texas by Pennzoil Co. The court voted to review a ruling that Texaco need only put $1 billion in security, a requirement the corporation satisfied by pledging stock in its Canadian subsidiary.
A state court jury in Texas last year found that Texaco improperly interfered with Pennzoil's planned acquisition of an interest in Getty Oil Co. The jury awarded Pennzoil $11.1 billion against Texaco.
--In a decision that could provide the government millions of tax dollars, ruled that tax-exempt organizations can be taxed for profits made by providing insurance to their members. At issue was an insurance plan sponsored by the American Bar Endowment.
--Agreed to decide whether police may enter fenced-in property and look into a barn without first getting a search warrant. The court said it will hear a Reagan Administration appeal aimed at reinstating a Texas man's federal drug conviction.
--Refused to hear the appeal of air traffic controllers fired by the government for going on strike in 1981.