What Effect Can a Maryland Judge’s Instruction to the Jury Have on a Criminal Trial?

photo_13072_20090812As we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, Maryland takes a criminal’s right to trial by jury very seriously. While deliberating, however, jurors may need instruction from the trial judge. If a question is asked of the trial judge, any answer the judge gives must accurately state the law, respond to the jury’s question, but still permit the jury to decide the case.

Often a juror’s question concerns the law related to the evidence. However, a jury may also ask about the absence of something in the evidence. In a recent case, a man was on trial for second degree assault, committed against his girlfriend. The girlfriend testified that the man often came home drunk and hit her. On the day in question, he cursed at her, threw a glass at her, started hitting her with his fists and kicked her until she ran outside and hid.

She called 911 and in the call stated he had hit her in the head and was throwing her things into the street. When the police came they ordered the man to leave the property and told the woman to go back inside. Later the man returned and beat her again. She again ran and called 911.

Eventually she made a videotape of her injuries, which were shown to the jurors at trial. She and the man broke up about two weeks later. She filed a complaint against the man a week later and claimed that she hadn’t reported the injuries to the police sooner due to fear.

At trial, the State called the woman as the only witness to the assault against her and introduced her 911 calls. The defense did not call witnesses or present evidence. However, the defense argued that she had fabricated the story of her attacks as revenge against the man for evicting her. The defense suggested that the lack of a police report showed her account of events was a lie and that if she’d had injuries as she claimed, the police would have taken a report.

Once they started deliberating the jurors asked the judge if they could consider the fact that there wasn’t a police report or police testimony in reaching a verdict. The State agreed that it was permissible for the jurors to realize that there was no police report, but did not want the jurors to infer anything from that fact. The defense counsel believed it was appropriate to consider the lack of evidence as much as the existing evidence.

The court noted there is a difference between what each lawyer could argue and the jury instructions. The court also admitted that anything from the mouth of a judge could tilt the jury’s deliberations in a particular direction. Ultimately, it told the jurors to decide based on the existing evidence in the case: the testimony and physical evidence or exhibits. He acknowledged they could draw inferences based on their own experience.

The jury found the defendant guilty of the first count of second-degree assault, but not guilty on the second count of second-degree assault. The court sentenced the defendant to five years imprisonment. The defendant appealed and argued that the trial court’s instruction undercut the defense theory of revenge.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction, finding that the judge had exercised his discretion fairly. The Court of Appeals also affirmed on the grounds explaining that the purpose of a jury instruction is to help the jury understand the case and help it to arrive at a correct verdict. The judge is to avoid giving answers that are ambiguous or confusing.

The appellate court explained that the trial court was right to be cautious in response to a jury question. Generally counsel is not permitted to comment on facts not in evidence. The instruction allowed the jury to draw its own inferences without telling them what inferences to draw.

As you can see, a criminal defense case can be complex and involve many procedural challenges. Consult an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney to get the best defense. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More Blogs

The Voluntary Intoxication Instruction, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, June 25. 2013

Maryland Mother Loses Her Daughters, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, June 24, 2013

 

 

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