Maryland Court’s Refusal to Give Requested Jury Instruction Upheld

Criminal cases vary a great deal, from the moment when a person is arrested and charges are filed to the conclusion of a jury trial or plea bargain. Under Maryland law, criminal defendants are typically afforded the right to a trial by jury. With this right come certain rules and procedures that govern court-issued “jury instructions.” Such instructions help a jury decide if they believe a defendant is guilty or innocent. The prosecution and defense often request that certain instructions be submitted to the jury, depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding a case.

In criminal cases, Maryland Rule 4-325 provides: “The court may, and at the request of any party shall, instruct the jury as to the applicable law and the extent to which the instructions are binding. The court may give its instructions orally or, with the consent of the parties, in writing instead of orally. The court need not grant a requested instruction if the matter is fairly covered by instructions actually given.” In a recent criminal case, the defendant appealed a conviction of first-degree murder (among other things), arguing that the court abused its discretion by failing to give a “witness promised benefit” jury instruction. This instruction would advise the jury that it may consider the testimony of a witness, who provided evidence for the state, “as a result of” an “expectation of a benefit,” but such testimony is to be considered “with caution” because it may have been influenced by the witness’ hope to gain the benefit.

Here, one of the two witnesses to the shooting testified that she heard gunshots and then saw the victim lying on her porch steps outside the house, and the defendant heading to his car. She and the other witness both identified the defendant in a photo array. The defendant’s attorney argued that this witness cooperated with the State only because the authorities agreed to move her to free, protective housing for several months. The court declined counsel’s request to give the jury the “witness promised benefit” instruction. During closing arguments, the defense counsel failed to mention that the witness provided evidence to the state because she received free, protective housing, and that such testimony might be less credible due to this benefit.

The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder, use of a handgun in the commission of a crime, and wearing, carrying, and transporting a handgun. He was sentenced to incarceration for life for the murder, as well as to other terms for the remaining crimes. The defendant appealed, arguing that he was entitled to the witness promised benefit instruction, pointing out that the witness only provided a statement after she was promised the housing benefit. The appellate court disagreed and upheld the trial court’s ruling, finding a general jury instruction was sufficient in this case. The court pointed out, however, that no Maryland court had yet addressed whether a trial court must provide a witness promised benefit instruction under similar circumstances. The court then found that other jurisdictions have held that a trial court does not abuse its discretion in declining to instruct the jury in this manner, reasoning that the “general credibility instruction” fairly covered the issue. Furthermore, the court concluded that such a decision is left to the sound discretion of the trial court judge.

In this case and under these facts, apparently the “credibility of witnesses” jury instruction was found to be sufficient. Criminal cases vary a great deal. There are many defenses one can raise, depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding the case. Seeking the counsel of an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney is one of the most effective ways to approach any criminal investigation. If you are arrested or charged with a crime, our office will work diligently to develop the best strategy to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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