An Overturned Murder Conviction in Alaska Highlights an Important Concept in Maryland Law About Prosecutors’ Closing Arguments

Sometimes, even cases going on out-of-state can shed some important light on the way Maryland criminal defense law works. A recent ruling from Alaska that threw out a man’s murder conviction due to a prosecutor’s closing argument is particularly interesting for Marylanders as, among the cases the Alaska court took note of, and quoted from, was a very significant 1992 Maryland ruling whose impact continues to this day.

Making sure that the arguments made against you are only those things that the law allows is one area where skilled Maryland criminal defense counsel can help. Not only can your experienced defense attorney identify what the prosecution can (and, more importantly, cannot) get away with, your knowledgeable attorney will also know how to go about taking the proper steps keep those improper harmful arguments out of your case.

In the Alaska case, J.A. was on trial for stabbing a man to death. At closing arguments, the prosecutor went to some length to point out that, even if the jury convicted the man, the accused would still have recourse, such as asking the trial judge to set aside the verdict or appealing the conviction to the Court of Appeals (or the Supreme Court after that.) The Court of Appeals in that state threw out the conviction as a result of that argument. By “assuring the jurors that, if they made a mistake, the trial judge or an appellate court would fix it later,” the prosecutor misled the jury about the finality and importance of their decision.

The Alaska court, in deciding in favor of the accused man, looked at past decisions from several states, including Maryland. Some years earlier, a man named M.J. was on trial in Baltimore for murder. The prosecutor in that trial told the jury that, “if your verdict is not guilty you can’t change it.” If, on the other hand, the jury returned a guilty verdict, then the accused could seek relief from the Court of Special Appeals or, if needed, the Court of Appeals, according to the prosecutor.

Improper responsibility-shifting from the jury to other courts

That message, conveyed by that Maryland prosecutor, was improper and got M.J.’s conviction overturned. The implicit thrust of the prosecutor’s closing argument, according to the Court of Appeals, was that “the jurors need not be unduly concerned about convicting [M.J.] If the conviction turned out to be improper, it may be wiped out on appeal.” That improperly infringed on the accused man’s rights because “one of the most egregious errors counsel can make is to attempt to put the responsibilities of the jurors on some other body.”

The rule established by that case remains in place today in Maryland courts. Arguments by prosecutors that jurors should be less concerned about finding a defendant guilty due to the existence of post-conviction relief and appellate options is not allowable. It implies that jurors can cast a vote of guilty, even with some reasonable reservations about the accused’s guilt, because any mistakes they make will be cleaned up afterward by other courts.

You, as a lay person, may not have known that such an argument is forbidden. Furthermore, even if you somehow did, you may not know how to go about contesting such an argument if it was made in your case. But a knowledgeable Maryland defense lawyer would be keenly aware of both. When it comes to safeguarding your rights before, during and after your criminal trial, you need the skills and experience of Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi, who has been diligently representing the accused in Maryland for many years. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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