An Improper Refusal of a Voir Dire Question and How That Helped a Maryland Man Get His Assault Conviction Vacated

In a criminal case, it might be easy to assume that the outcome of the case will be a result of what takes place during the trial. The reality of criminal trials is more complicated than that. A favorable or unfavorable outcome often has a lot to do with who is on the jury, rather than just which evidence is placed before those jurors. The careful execution of questioning jurors and excluding those who might make for poor fits is a vital part of your defense. In the case of one man facing attempted murder charges, an error by a judge in not allowing the defense to ask potential jurors a particular question resulted in a reversal of his conviction by the Court of Special Appeals.

The defendant was a man originally facing attempted second-degree murder and attempted voluntary manslaughter charges, along with a weapons charge. Before the trial started, the defendant asked the court for permission to ask the pool of potential jurors a specific question during the voir dire (preliminary juror questioning) process:  have you ever been charged with or convicted of a criminal offense, excluding routine moving violations? The judge rejected the question. The defendant’s attorney offered to narrow the question to cover only crimes of violence. The judge still said no. The jury eventually convicted the defendant on assault and weapons charges, and the court sentenced him to 15 years.

The man appealed, again contesting the issue of this unasked jury panel question. The appeals court agreed with the defendant. Maryland places certain restrictions on who can and cannot serve on a jury. Specifically, in Maryland, the law says you are not eligible to be a juror if you have “been convicted of a crime punishable by more than 6 months in prison, were sentenced to more than 6 months in prison and have not been pardoned, or have criminal charges pending for a crime that is punishable by more than 6 months in prison.”

In this case, the defense’s question about potential jurors and their having been charged with or convicted of a crime of violence went directly to a “specific cause for disqualification.” Had the defense gotten to ask its question, and had a potential juror acknowledged a past conviction for a violent crime, the judge would have been obliged to have dismissed that potential juror.

The Court of Appeals issued a ruling back in 2012 that said that a “mandatory area” of the juror questioning process is “to determine whether the prospective juror meets the minimum statutory qualifications for jury service.” In light of that legal standard and the fact that the amended question that the defense proposed to ask in this case sought to inquire about a fact that, if discovered to be true, would be an automatic disqualification for that potential juror, the judge should have allowed the question.

This error by the judge meant that the defendant’s conviction was vacated, and he was entitled to a new trial.

The key to vacating this man’s conviction was something that took place before either side gave an opening statement or the first witness took the stand. In your criminal case, the events that will help shape the outcome go well beyond the trial itself. Proper management of all of these things is one of the benefits of having experienced Maryland criminal counsel. Skilled Maryland violent crime attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has been providing diligent representation with keen attention to all of the details to Maryland clients for many years. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

Maryland Court Overturns Conviction Based on Error During Voir Dire (Jury Questioning), Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Dec. 4, 2015

Maryland Court Reverses Criminal Conviction for Failure to Ask Requested “Voir Dire” Question, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Sept. 24, 2015

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