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Molestation conviction overturned due to SLO prosecutor's error 

A mistake made by a SLO County prosecutor could lead to the retrial of a Cambria man found guilty of molesting a young boy over a period of two years.

A state appeals court reversed the 2014 conviction of Ronald Cowan, 59, stating that the SLO County prosecutor in charge of his case made misleading statements to the jury about the assumption of Cowan’s innocence during closing arguments at his trial.

Cowan was found guilty of five felony counts of child molestation and sentenced to 65 years to life in prison. During the trial, prosecutors argued that Cowan befriended the family of his victim by plying them with cash and gifts. The sexual abuse allegedly began in 2012 when the child was just 2 years old and continued over a two-year period.

According to the ruling issued by California’s 2nd District Court of Appeals on Feb. 23, the controversial comments occurred during a rebuttal, when Deputy District Attorney Kelly Manderino reportedly told the jurors that Cowan’s presumptive innocence was “over.”

“Because that presumption is in place only when the charges are read,” she reportedly told the jury. “But you have now heard all the evidence. That presumption is gone.”

In criminal trials, the prosecution has a burden of proving charges against defendants beyond a reasonable doubt, and the defendants have the right to be considered innocent of those charges until proven guilty.

While the appellate court did acknowledge that the evidence presented against Cowan was “strong,” it called the statements a “grossly inaccurate” explanation and noted that prosecutors may not misinform jurors with false and misleading statements concerning the law, calling it a “disreputable tactic” that threatened the justice system. Joshua Siegel, the Santa Monica-based lawyer representing Cowan in his appeal, agreed.

“There’s a line between properly stating the law and misstating the law, and the prosecutor crossed that line,” Siegel told New Times. “I think in this particular case, it was a blatant misstatement of the law.”

In a written statement to New Times, SLO County Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham confirmed that the case against Cowan would be retried and defended Manderino’s statements.

“Final argument is a phase of the trial that is fraught with danger for prosecutors,” Cunningham wrote. “[Manderino] is very experienced and an excellent trial lawyer. She is dedicated to doing her job ethically and well. The rules with respect to arguing the concepts of ‘reasonable doubt’ and the ‘presumption of innocence’ are not well defined, and change from time to time through court decisions such as this one.”

Cunningham said that Manderino would not face any disciplinary action from the DA’s office, but the matter would be referred to the California State Bar Association.

Cunningham said the office has not determined which of its prosecutors will retry the case.

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