Can the Defense Ask a Maryland Criminal Witness About His Expectation of Leniency for Testifying?

In a recent case, the petitioner was convicted of multiple counts of second-degree murder, first-degree assault, and use of a handgun, among other things. He was sentenced to imprisonment plus 170 years.

The case arose when two men were shot and killed. There were several witnesses who testified on behalf of the State. Before his trial, one witness was sentenced to probation for charges of attempting to distribute an illegal substance. He was also charged with possession of a firearm and sentenced to six months. He was given some leniency in his jail stay because he was scheduled to testify at the petitioner’s trial.

Before trial, the State asked that the petitioner not be able to question any of its witnesses regarding prior arrests. The defense objected on the grounds that one of the witnesses had an agreement for leniency. The State claimed there was no plea and the witness had asked for a release because he was a witness to his brother’s murder and was frightened during his jail stay. The court agreed with the State that it was a safety issue.

When the defense tried to cross-examine the witness about his motives for testifying, the inquiry was prevented. After the witness’ testimony, the defendant asked again to cross-examine him on his motive to testify. The issue was just whether he believed he would receive any benefit at the hearing for testifying. The court would not permit the questions, explaining the defendant had given a statement before winding up in jail.

The trial lasted 3 1/2 days. The jury deliberated for 5 1/2 days. On the second day, the jury told the judge via a note they hadn’t reached a unanimous decision on any of the counts and asked what they should do. They then sent another note stating they’d reached a verdict as to two counts.

The judge urged the jury to continue consulting and trying to come to agreement. The jury again submitted a question, this time about whether the use of a handgun related to each of the victims. Other notes were sent subsequently, including one about lack of juror cooperation and one that suggested one juror felt bullied by the majority of jurors.

Finally the jury returned its verdict against the defendant. The defendant appealed on the issue of whether the trial court should have allowed him to cross-examine the witness on the issue of leniency. The Court of Special Appeals agreed with him, but found the error harmless. It reasoned that the witness’ identification of the defendant was cumulative — there were other similar witnesses.

The defense argued at oral arguments that the length of time the jury took and its notes reflected a serious attempt to reach a reasonable decision and the difficulty of doing so. It argued that the jury deliberations supported a finding that it was not a harmless error.

The Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case to answer whether the trial court’s error was harmless or not. An error is harmless if an appellate court is satisfied that there isn’t a reasonable basis for believing the evidence could have contributed to the guilty verdict.

The appellate court explained that the harmless error analysis requires the court to ensure that what evidence to believe, the weight to be given to it and the facts that may be inferred from the evidence were given to the jury to determine. It noted that the defense should be able to impeach a witness’s credibility. Accordingly it reversed the lower court.

If you are arrested or charged with a crime, you should call a knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorney. We will develop the best strategy we can to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More Blogs

The Impact of a Defendant’s Signed Statement in Maryland, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 12, 2013

Reasonable Grounds for Requiring a Blood Test in Maryland, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 25, 2013


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