A 2020 Court of Appeals Decision Changes the Landscape of Voir Dire in Maryland Criminal Trials… and Indirectly Shows Why Good Defense Counsel Matters So Much in These Cases

On your favorite police-and-prosecutors procedural, you may encounter an episode where one of the attorneys intones dramatically that a particular outcome in a certain case could impact thousands of cases and lead to the reversal of hundreds of convictions. Real-life is often less dramatic. Occasionally, though, a real-life case comes along where the impact does represent a major shift in the law. When that happens, it pays to have a truly knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorney on your side, giving you a powerful advocate who has a completely up-to-date awareness of all of the changes in the law and knows how best to utilize them for you.

One of those “game-changer” sorts of cases happened here in Maryland in January. That month, the state’s highest court reversed a previous decision that had stood – and had governed voir dire in Maryland criminal trials – for more than 50 years.

The new rule announced in Kazadi v. State said that when an accused person’s attorney requests, the trial court must pose voir dire questions to potential jurors about their willingness and ability to follow the court’s instructions regarding the defendant’s presumption of innocence, the state’s burden of proof and the defendant’s right to decline to testify. (The 1964 decision stated that trial judges could, in their discretion, decline to pose those questions, even if the defense asked for them.)

Now and in the future, whenever a person is facing criminal charges, and his/her attorney asks for one or more of these questions, then the questions will be asked of potential jurors during voir dire, or else the defense will have a strong basis for reversal of a conviction on appeal.

The impact is also significant for people whose trials have already concluded. The Court of Special Appeals has already reversed numerous convictions because the defense asked for those kinds of voir dire questions and the trial judges said no. Within less than one week, on Dec. 2, Dec. 3 and Dec. 7, three different men convicted in three separate cases saw their second-degree murder convictions reversed by the Court of Special Appeals because of this change in the law.

A case study in the extreme importance of a defense attorney’s keen attention to detail

Another recent case that came before the Court of Special Appeals this year, and in the wake of the Kazadi decision, provides a very clear illustration of the importance of having good criminal defense counsel. The case involved a man and a woman on trial in connection with the killing of a bartender.

During the pretrial process, the man’s attorney asked for a voir dire question about the state’s burden of proof and the accused’s right not to testify. The attorney also asked for a separate voir dire question related to the presumption of innocence. For each one, the court declined. For each one, the man’s attorney placed an objection on the record. The woman’s attorney, however, didn’t object to the court’s refusal on either question and did not join the objections made by the man’s attorney. Only at the very end did the woman’s attorney submit a bare-bones objection that could be construed as related to the two voir dire questions.

That failure nearly cost the woman on appeal. While the Court of Appeals decided that the man clearly was entitled to a reversal, the court’s resolution of the woman’s appeal was not nearly so clear-cut. Of the woman’s attorney’s handling of the objections, the appeals court wrote that “it would have been a lot clearer had the parties declared on the record that they joined each other’s objections or for [the woman’s] counsel to have objected the two other times that” the man’s attorney did so.

The decision by the woman’s attorney not to join the male defendant’s objections nearly deprived the woman “of the benefits” of the Court of Appeals’ new rule announced in the Kazadi case, meaning that it very nearly cost her the conviction reversal to which she otherwise clearly would have been entitled.

Having the best possible criminal defense includes many things. It includes an ability to make a persuasive presentation to a jury. It also includes in-depth and wholly up-to-date knowledge of the law. It furthermore includes understanding “to a ‘T’” all of the minutiae that goes with trial practice and court procedures. A shortcoming in any of these areas can take a potential acquittal and turn it into a conviction. To make sure you have that best possible defense, count on the diligent and skillful Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC to provide you with the effective advocacy you deserve. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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