Maryland Court Reverses Conviction for Failure to Ask Defense-Witness Question

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.

The State opposed the appeal, arguing that the defense attorney’s failure to correct the prosecutor’s misstatement to the court regarding the Defense-Witness question essentially “invited” the error and thereby failed to preserve the objection. The Court of Special Appeals disagreed with the State’s position and reversed the conviction. The Court refused to hold defense counsel liable for the State’s mistake. In its opinion, the Court pointed out that both sides agreed under relevant case law that the defendant was entitled to have the trial court ask the Defense-Witness question during voir dire. Such a question is designed to reveal bias on behalf of potential jurors. The Court concluded that failing to ask the Defense-Witness question, which was not covered by other questions, constituted an abuse of discretion by the trial court.

This case nicely illustrates the need for parties to be aware of the subtle requirements under state laws applicable to criminal cases.  If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, it critically important that you consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer as quickly as possible. Anthony A. Fatemi has a great deal of experience handling criminal defense cases in Maryland.  Our office will work diligently to develop a strong strategy to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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