Criminal cases vary a great deal, from the moment when a person is arrested and charges are filed to the conclusion of a jury trial or plea bargain. Under Maryland law, criminal defendants are typically afforded the right to a trial by jury. With this right come certain rules and procedures that govern court-issued “jury instructions.” Such instructions help a jury decide if they believe a defendant is guilty or innocent. The prosecution and defense often request that certain instructions be submitted to the jury, depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding a case.
In criminal cases, Maryland Rule 4-325 provides: “The court may, and at the request of any party shall, instruct the jury as to the applicable law and the extent to which the instructions are binding. The court may give its instructions orally or, with the consent of the parties, in writing instead of orally. The court need not grant a requested instruction if the matter is fairly covered by instructions actually given.” In a recent criminal case, the defendant appealed a conviction of first-degree murder (among other things), arguing that the court abused its discretion by failing to give a “witness promised benefit” jury instruction. This instruction would advise the jury that it may consider the testimony of a witness, who provided evidence for the state, “as a result of” an “expectation of a benefit,” but such testimony is to be considered “with caution” because it may have been influenced by the witness’ hope to gain the benefit.
Here, one of the two witnesses to the shooting testified that she heard gunshots and then saw the victim lying on her porch steps outside the house, and the defendant heading to his car. She and the other witness both identified the defendant in a photo array. The defendant’s attorney argued that this witness cooperated with the State only because the authorities agreed to move her to free, protective housing for several months. The court declined counsel’s request to give the jury the “witness promised benefit” instruction. During closing arguments, the defense counsel failed to mention that the witness provided evidence to the state because she received free, protective housing, and that such testimony might be less credible due to this benefit. Continue reading →