Articles Posted in Jury Instructions

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 →

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 →

Contact Information