How a Small Flaw in a Jury Instruction Allowed a Maryland Man to Get His Conviction Overturned

In science, there exists something called the “butterfly effect.” The butterfly effect involves circumstances in which a small change in an initial state can result in massive difference in a later state. The concept got its name from scientists who asked the question: can a massive storm in one part of the world be traced back to a butterfly flapping its wings in another corner of the globe? In other words, sometimes very small distinctions or differences can, in the long run, have dramatic impacts on future outcomes. That’s true in the law, too, where very seemingly small things can sometimes be the difference between acquittal and conviction, which is why it pays to have a knowledgeable Maryland criminal attorney on your side for your defense.

Consider a man named C.W. C.W. was facing a very serious felony charge when he stood trial in Montgomery County. In order to obtain a conviction, the state had to show that C.W. inflicted “severe physical injury” on his alleged victim. In Maryland, the law defines severe physical injury as “a physical injury that either “creates a substantial risk of death” or “causes permanent or protracted serious disfigurement, loss of the function of any bodily member or organ, or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.”

At the end of C.W.’s trial, the judge gave the jury its instructions. The judge, following a “pattern” jury instruction, informed the jury that they should convict if the prosecution sufficiently showed that the alleged victim suffered an injury with a substantial risk of death, that caused “permanent or protracted serious disfigurement,” or “causes loss or impairment of a member or organ of the body or its ability to function properly.”

If you read that quickly, you might think that the jury instruction and the statute are the same, but they’re not. There’s a subtle difference. The jury instruction didn’t make it clear that any “loss or impairment of a member or organ of the body or its ability to function properly” must be permanent or of a protected serious nature, even though that is what the law requires. This lack of clarity meant that it was possible that the jury believed that it was required to convict if the state proved any degree of “loss or impairment of a member or organ of the body or its ability to function properly.”

In the end, the jury convicted C.W. but the Court of Special Appeals ordered a new trial. The jury instruction contained a clear error in regard to injuries to a body organ or member. The flaw in the jury instruction had the effect, essentially, of lowering the hurdle that the prosecution had to clear in order for the jury to return a verdict of “guilty.” When that happens, that means, in almost any situation, that the accused has not received a fair trial. The only way that this kind of error would not produce an unfair trial is if it was proven “beyond a reasonable doubt that the error in no way influenced the verdict.”

That wasn’t the case in C.W.’s trial, which meant that he did not receive a fair trial, and was entitled to a new one.
To protect your rights fully when you are on trial or facing the prospect of a criminal trial, put the power of legal knowledge and experience on your side by retaining skilled Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi, who has been diligently representing the accused in Maryland for many years. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

The ‘Missing Witness’ Jury Instruction and the Role it Can Play in Your Maryland Criminal Trial, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 19, 2018

How Erroneous Jury Instructions on a Maryland Murder Charge Can Taint an Entire Case and Lead to a Reversal of All Convictions, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Feb. 9, 2018

Contact Information