Questions About Racial Bias During Maryland Voir Dire

man-1206193-mA recent case involved murder, assault, and the use of a handgun in a violent crime. The defendant was sentenced to 53 years of incarceration. The victim was shot outside his home as he was coming back from church with his wife. He survived and at trial identified the defendant as the person who shot him.

The defendant had a child with the victim’s daughter. The State presented a theory that the defendant shot the victim because he blamed him for an adverse custody determination. Before trial started, the defendant’s attorney submitted proposed questions for voir dire. Voir dire is the process by which a jury is selected.

One of the proposed questions referred to the fact that the defendant was African-American and asked the juror to answer whether that fact would impact his or her ability to be fair and impartial. There were 72 prospective jurors.

The court acknowledged the question but asked the prosecutor what he thought about the court asking the question. The prosecutor objected to the question, claiming all the witnesses were African-American. The court decided not to ask the question, so the defense attorney objected but agreed to accept it.

Once the jury was selected, the defense attorney explained that, while he had said he was satisfied, he still objected to the court’s refusal to ask the question about race. The judge told the defense attorney that he had already made a statement for the record.

The trial proceeded with the State’s case. On the second day, the prosecutor told the court that she had done some research and now believed that failing to pose the question about race was reversible error.

She asked the defense attorney to waive his objection to the court’s failure to propound that question and proposed the question be asked of the seated jurors as a way of curing the error. The defense attorney refused and reiterated his objection. The judge decided to try to cure it by calling each juror up and asking him or her the question.

The defense attorney maintained his objection to this effort to cure, claiming the seated jurors were likely to be invested in the case and would no longer give the same free response. The court decided not to ask the question, and the trial continued. On the third day, the State rested, and the defense attorney asked for judgment of acquittal, raising again the issue of the voir dire question. The court denied the request. After the defendant was convicted, he appealed.

In the earlier case found by the prosecution, the Hispanic defendant asked the trial court to pose the question whether any prospective juror would be biased against a defendant because of his race, color, religion, sexual orientation, appearance, or sex.

The court refused to ask this question on the grounds that these categories were covered by the more general question about bias or prejudice against the defendant. The appellate court reversed, holding that where a voir dire question had been properly asked and directed to prejudice against the defendant’s race, ethnicity, or cultural heritage, the trial court would be required to ask it except under special circumstances.

In its appellate brief, the State argued that the defendant should have allowed the proposed cure. The appeals court disagreed. It explained that the purpose of voir dire in a criminal case was to effectuate the defendant’s constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury. A prospective juror biased against a criminal defendant’s race, ethnicity, or cultural heritage is not qualified to sit on a┬ájury in that defendant’s case. The court reversed.

If you are arrested or charged with a crime, you should consult with an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney. We will develop a strong strategy to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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