Jury selection is a critically important aspect of a criminal trial. This phase is also referred to as “voir dire” – the point at which counsel for both the State and the defendant have an opportunity to ask the potential jurors questions in order to determine whether an individual exhibits a possible bias against either side. The law seeks to protect against such an unfair situation by affording both sides certain rights. In fact, a criminal defendant is entitled to a variety of protections under the law throughout the proceedings. If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, it is important to understand your rights and the potential defenses available under the circumstances. You are encouraged to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.
If jury selection is not handled in accordance with Maryland law, any resulting criminal conviction could be overturned. In a recent case, Smith v. State, the defendant’s counsel asked the circuit court to include this mandatory Defense-Witness question to the jury: “Is there any member of the panel who would be less likely to believe a witness simply because they were called by the defense?” The purpose of this question is to identify jurors who might have a bias against defense witnesses. Under Maryland law, if a question for a jury panel refers to a specific cause for disqualification, that question must be asked. The failure to ask is considered an abuse of discretion on behalf of the court.
As it turned out, the trial court failed to ask the question during voir dire. Defendant’s counsel expressly challenged the omission of the Defense-Witness question. Under Maryland Rule 4-323(c), the objector need only make its objections known to the court in order to preserve the objection. However, the trial court agreed with the State’s mistaken assumption that the Defense-Witness question was covered by a question already asked by the defendant’s counsel. At that point, defendant’s counsel did not correct the judge’s statement. A trial was held, and the defendant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and use of a handgun in the commission of a felony. The defendant appealed, arguing that the failure to ask the mandatory Defense-Witness question required a reversal of his convictions. Continue reading →