How Erroneous Jury Instructions on a Maryland Murder Charge Can Taint an Entire Case and Lead to a Reversal of All Convictions

There are several different ways that a defendant can be convicted of murder in Maryland. One of these is for the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed intentional murder. An alternative avenue does not require the state to prove this level of intent. It only requires that the prosecution show that the accused intended to commit another crime and that a death occurred in the process of that activity. This is called “felony murder.” There are ways to defend against a charge of felony murder, some of which involve utilizing a detailed knowledge of the law. This is yet another example of how your case can benefit from the skills of a knowledgeable Maryland homicide defense attorney.

One recent case involved a defendant, Sean, who was facing a felony murder charge. The death took place after the end of a party at the home of a man named Charles. Charles, TJ, Gary, Sean, and Chucky had been partaking of drugs and alcohol at the party. After the party ended, a dispute occurred between Chucky and Sean regarding a bag of cocaine. That dispute eventually led to a shooting outside Sean’s home.

Some time later, Sean brought Chucky to a fire station. Chucky had a gunshot wound to the temple. The volunteer fire fighters tried to save Chucky’s life, but they were not successful.

The state eventually prosecuted Sean for felony murder. The underlying crimes that can give the state the opportunity to pursue a felony murder charge are limited to things like arson, burglary, carjacking, prison break, kidnapping, rape, and robbery (among others). As an example, if a man participates in a bank robbery, and a security guard dies during the robbery, that man can potentially be charged with murder, even if he only drove the getaway car.

Eventually, the state charged Sean with first-degree murder and with using a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence. The jury acquitted Sean on the first-degree murder charge but deadlocked on second-degree murder and the gun charge. A second jury convicted Sean on both charges, and he received a sentence of a total of 50 years.

Sean appealed his conviction and successfully got both convictions overturned. As far as the murder charge, he argued (and the state did not contest) that this conviction was improper. Based upon the verdict that the jury in Sean’s case returned, it wasn’t clear if the jury found that Sean intentionally committed second-degree murder or if he committed second-degree felony murder based upon another underlying crime (first-degree assault). The problem with that was that, based upon a 2017 ruling by Maryland’s highest court, first-degree assault can’t qualify as the underlying crime for a felony murder charge. Thus, that ruled out second-degree felony murder.

Because of the way that the jury returned its verdict, there was no way to decipher whether they found Sean guilty of second-degree murder based upon a theory of intentional murder or felony murder. When uncertainty and a lack of clarity like that exist in a conviction, the conviction cannot stand. This meant that the murder conviction had to be reversed completely.

That left the gun charge. Even though the rules related to felony murder and the ambiguity of the jury’s verdict didn’t directly affect the verdict on the gun charge, Sean was entitled to a reversal on this charge too. The law says that, in some situations, the errors made in other jury instructions (such as the murder instructions in Sean’s case) can taint other charges as well. Based on the facts in this case, the errors had tainted all of the charges and required a reversal of all of the convictions.

When it comes to your criminal case, it is important to have an attorney who knows the law in great detail and understands how to protect your rights. Skilled Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has been defending the accused in Maryland for many years, providing a strong and knowledgeable defense at every step in the process. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

Maryland Court Rejects State’s Effort To Retry Second-Degree Felony Murder Charge, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 11, 2015

Maryland’s Highest Court Decides Felony Murder Sentencing Issue, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 27, 2015


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