How a Flaw in Jury Instructions Allowed a Maryland Murder Defendant to Secure a New Trial

GavelIn any criminal case, preparing a defense involves covering a lot of bases. Sometimes, success may hinge upon excluding a piece of evidence or obtaining compelling eyewitness testimony. At other times, though, a successful Maryland criminal defense may involve something as specific as the jury instructions given in your case. In the trial of one man ultimately convicted of murder, the jury instructions were the key to his receiving a new trial because those instructions did not instruct the jury about the presumption of innocence or the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof.

David was accused in the late 1960s of shooting and killing another man in Baltimore. In 1969, at the conclusion of a jury trial, David was found guilty and sentenced. The accused man filed motions with the trial court, asking for post-conviction relief, but they were not successful. In 2014, he asked the trial court to re-open his post-conviction relief motions. The court again turned him down.

The accused murderer appealed, and, this time, he achieved success. The Court of Special Appeals ordered his conviction reversed and ordered the trial court to grant him a new trial. What was it that was the key to a reversal of the conviction and David’s receipt of a new trial? It came down to the way that the judge instructed the jury in his original murder trial.

The jury in David’s murder trial received what’s called an “advisory-only” jury instruction. An example of what such an instruction might look like was depicted in the Court of Appeals’ 2015 ruling in State v. Waine. In that case, the jury received this instruction:  “Under the Constitution and laws of the State, the jury in a criminal case is the judge of both the law and the facts and anything I say to you about the law is advisory only. It is intended to help you, but you are at liberty to reject the Court’s advice on the law and to arrive at your own independent conclusion on it, if you desire to do so.”

This instruction might seem perfectly ordinary. The problem with it is what’s not in it. In these types of instructions, the judge has told the jury that the jury is the judge of the law. However, the instruction does not tell the jury that the liberty afforded a jury does not include convicting a defendant with proof anywhere below the “reasonable doubt” standard and does not allow the jury to discard the defendant’s presumption of innocence.

Since David was tried in the late 1960s, and, at that time, trial court judges were required to give juries the “advisory-only” instruction, it was clear that the jury that convicted David was told they were the “decider” of the facts and the law, but they were not told that they still had to operate under a presumption of David’s innocence until proven guilty, and to find him guilty only if his guilt was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Criminal law continues to change with the entry of new Court of Appeals and Court of Special Appeals decisions, as well as statutory law modifications, meaning you need experienced counsel who is fully up-to-date on the law and how to use it to your advantage in your defense. Skilled Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has been working on behalf of the accused in Maryland for many years to provide them with an aggressive and knowledgeable defense. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

Sweating the Small Stuff: How Seemingly Little Details Can Make a Big Difference in Your Maryland Criminal Case, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 22, 2017

Maryland Court’s Refusal to Give Requested Jury Instruction Upheld, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Aug. 23, 2014

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