A New Maryland Court of Appeal Ruling Means More Available Tools During Voir Dire for Criminal Defendants

Many people frequently make the mistake of thinking that the key to success in a criminal case lies within some evidence produced at trial or some argument made during the trial itself. In TV courtroom dramas, the “a-ha!” moment almost always happens at or near the end of the trial. In real life, however, it’s more complicated than that. Each phase of the process can potentially be the one that makes the difference between acquittal and conviction. The question that tips the outcome in your favor may be one asked during voir dire, long before anyone even makes an opening statement at trial. This, among many other things, is why you need to be sure you have a skilled Maryland criminal defense attorney working for you from the very beginning of your case.

Not a lot of people know much about voir dire other than as a badly mispronounced phrase in the 1990s courtroom comedy film, My Cousin Vinny. In reality, voir dire is an essential process in any criminal case. When it comes to a jury, voir dire means a process where the judge and the attorneys asked potential jurors a series of questions. Voir dire is very, very important because it can go a long way toward identifying people who will be willing to look at all the evidence and render a fair verdict, and also identify people who might be predisposed toward returning a guilty verdict, even when the state hasn’t fully met its burden.

In a recent first-degree murder case, the defense was looking for those kinds of potential jurors, hoping to identify and exclude them. The defense wanted to ask several questions designed to achieve that goal, including spotting potential jurors who would be unwilling or unable to follow jury instructions related to the defendant’s presumption of innocence, the state’s burden of proof and the defendant’s right not to take the stand in his own defense. The trial judge, however, refused to allow those questions to be posed to the potential jurors.

The defendant, T.K., was convicted but the Court of Appeal later reversed that conviction. In a very important ruling, the high court stated that trial judges in situations like this one were required to have the potential jurors answer those types of questions. The lower courts had ruled against T.K. based on a 1964 decision. In that much earlier case, the Court of Appeal said that the questions need not be asked. The high court, in its ruling in T.K.’s case, overruled the 1964 decision, which means that courts should no longer follow the instructions from the 1964 ruling but instead follow rules spelled out in this opinion.

New information meant that Maryland needed new law

The change was necessary, the court said, because the courts had more information at their fingertips now than they did in 1964. As recently as 2018, a committee of the Maryland State Bar noted that “’studies have shown that jurors routinely misunderstand or misapply’ the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof.” The Court of Appeal obviously didn’t have the benefit of those studies in 1964 but, knowing this now, reversing the old decision became clearly necessary.

This new decision is potentially a huge benefit to people on trial. These enhanced voir dire options may give the defense team and even better chance to see inside the minds of potential jurors and weed out those who are predisposed to convict, even when the proof isn’t there.

There are many steps involved in giving yourself the fairest possible trial and the best possible chance of acquittal. One of those is ensuring you get a fair jury. To protect your rights, make sure you have the right legal counsel on your side and working for you from the moment you are arrested. For the defense strategies and tactics you need, rely on experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi, who has many years of providing skillful and effective representation to accused people. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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