The Impact of a Defendant’s Signed Statement in Maryland

firefighters-1018822-mIf you are suspected of a crime, you should always ask to talk to an attorney before answering questions from the police. You also should not sign anything the police give you nor write your own statement without advice of counsel. In a recent case, the issue of confession arose in connection with multiple arson attempts. A man, his wife, and their daughter returned home at about 1:00 a.m. one night. The man noticed lights coming through his blinds. He saw a fire coming out of the front of his garage and alerted his family before telephoning the fire department.

The man tried to contain the fire with a garden hose. The firemen asked him to move out of the way and proceeded to spray down the place. The police investigated the cause of the fire. An arson investigator determined someone had set the fire. Shortly thereafter, the man awoke at 3:00 a.m. and found the house filled with smoke. The roof was on fire. They called 911. The Fire Marshall smelled accelerant on the roof.

The police collected roofing and other materials for testing. They determined there was gasoline in the samples. The family put up 12 cameras for surveillance and the couple slept in shifts so they could monitor what was happening. A month later, during the wife’s shift, she noticed someone walking down the street carrying a container. The person poured liquid on her car.

She awoke her family and yelled at the man through the window to get away from her car. He gave her the middle finger. They called the police and the man ran back up the street. They realized that the man was one of the daughter’s former boyfriends from high school based on his posture, walk and frame. They told the police his name and address.

The police officer that responded looked at the surveillance footage and drove to the man’s house. The canine with him and his partner alerted them that there were accelerants present on or in his car. They knocked on the defendant’s door and smelled gas as they walked inside. They arrested the defendant, who consented to a canine search of both himself and the vehicle. No evidence was found on him, but there were accelerants in his trunk and under the driver’s seat of his car. His shoes were taken for analysis.

The defendant was taken to the police station and told his Miranda rights. He waived his rights. He admitted he had poured gasoline on the car and was going to light it on fire with a lighter. He also admitted to setting the house on fire on the other occasions, explaining that he had a grudge against the family for how they treated him when he was dating the daughter. He also wrote a statement confessing and claiming he was crazy and needed the lethal injection.

A grand jury indicted him for ten offenses. The trial lasted three days and after the jury deliberated for a day, the circuit court found the defendant not guilty of one count of reckless endangerment. There was a mistrial on the other counts. Another trial was held and the court accepted a partial verdict that found the defendant guilty of attempted arson in the second degree. There was a mistrial on the other counts. Another trial was conducted.

During the trial at issue, the prosecutor claimed during her opening statement that the defendant would tell the jury he burned down the garage. The defense objected, but the objection was overruled and the prosecutor continued to make references to how the defendant would tell them how he did it.

The defense argued that the statement the defendant gave was too vague to be believed and that it was a false confession. The defense attorney also told the judge he was going to ask for a mistrial because the prosecutor had violated the defendant’s Fifth Amendment right not to testify. He did not put the defendant on the stand to testify.

After the defendant was sentenced, he filed a motion for new trial alleging prosecutorial misconduct. This motion was denied and the defendant appealed.

On appeal, the State argued that what the prosecutor said did not violate or affect the defendant’s Fifth Amendment right not to testify and that because the statement included a full confession, what the prosecutor said was harmless. The appellate court explained that prosecutors have great leeway in what they say during opening and closing statements and are free to make legitimate comments about the evidence.

The appellate court agreed with the State, explaining that unless a jury would necessarily interpret the comments as “inviting” them to draw an adverse inference from a defendant’s failure to testify, the remarks would not be considered prejudicially unfair. The test is whether the comments made the defendant feel he would have to testify or face negative consequences from staying quiet. The appellate court affirmed the lower court.

If you are arrested or charged with a crime, it is in your best interests to consult a knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorney. We can determine what kinds of defenses are available in your particular case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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Handgun Violence in Maryland, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, August 20, 2013

What is the “rule of lenity” in Maryland? Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 25, 2013

 

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