Criminal defendants in Maryland have a right to jury trial and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. In a recent case, the court was asked to consider whether a waiver was valid where the trial judge offered the defendant advice that was erroneous.
The case was a murder case in which the defendant was charged for the murder of his father. He entered a plea of not guilty and not criminally responsible, but was interested in a bench trial (one in which the judge rules on guilt or innocence.)
In Maryland, judges are required to ask a defendant waiving his or her right to a jury trial specific questions. The judge in this case asked whether the defendant wanted to waive a jury. He also asked about his schooling, substance use, and physical illness.
The defendant claimed he understood that he had a right to a jury of 12 persons and that unless he waived that trial by jury, he would be tried by jury.
The judge also incorrectly advised that for a jury to convict him they would have to unanimously vote to convict him or find him criminally responsible or not beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant said he understood and had no questions.
Accordingly, during the trial the parties did not dispute the defendant’s involvement in his father’s death. The defense attorney said there were two issues — whether or not he was guilty or whether he was criminally responsible.
The State argued the crime was premeditated. However, the defendant put forward testimony from a psychiatrist who said he had schizophrenia and other disorders.
The trial judge found that the defendant did not demonstrate he was not criminally responsible. The defendant was convicted of first degree murder.
The defendant appealed his conviction, arguing that his waiver of a jury trial was not knowing and voluntary. He argued that the judge had told him the wrong standard of proof during the plea colloquy and that the judge hadn’t distinguished properly between a trial regarding guilty versus a trial regarding criminal responsibility. The defendant also claimed that the judge had not given him the possibility of a full acquittal.
The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the conviction, reasoning that the trial court did not have the responsibility to advise the defendant about the standard of proof or the other items of which the defendant had complained.
The Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case on the issue of whether the waiver was invalid in light of the judge’s misstatement regarding a trial on the issue of whether he was not criminally responsible.
The State argued the defendant had not asserted that but for the misinformation he would not have waived his right to a jury trial. The appellate court reasoned the trial judge had the ultimate responsibility to make sure the defendant made a knowing and voluntary waiver.
Trial courts are expected to engage in a detailed dialogue to make sure the waiver is not susceptible to an attack. The appellate court examined the totality of the circumstances and found the trial judge’s explanation regarding jury trials and the burden of proof was misleading.
In Maryland, once the State proves a defendant is guilty, the defendant then bears the burden to show by a preponderance of the evidence that he is not criminally responsible. The statement might have made the defendant think that the task of proving he was no criminally responsible to a jury was more difficult than it is. Accordingly, the lower court’s decision was reversed.
If you are arrested or charged with a crime, it is in your best interests to consult a knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorney. We can determine what kinds of defenses are available in your particular case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
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