Mistrials, Double Jeopardy, and Maryland Criminal Cases

Both the U.S. Constitution and Maryland law prohibit a person from facing double jeopardy, or being tried for the same crime twice. As a part of this protection, if you go to trial, and the trial judge declares a mistrial over your properly invoked objection, you cannot be tried again unless a “manifest necessity” existed for granting that mistrial. In a recent murder case, the Court of Special Appeals decided to uphold a trial judge’s decision finding the existence of such a necessity, meaning that the state was, in this situation, allowed to re-try the man for murder after his previous trial ended in a mistrial.

The crime that led to Antonio Johnson’s trial was the murder of Deborah Simon in her home in Baltimore. In Johnson’s June 2015 trial, his lawyer gave an opening statement declaring the man’s innocence. Johnson, the attorney claimed, was visiting his mother and, later, in Baltimore’s housing projects buying drugs and getting high when the murder occurred.

After the state rested its case, Johnson’s attorney advised him of his right to testify. Johnson declined, and the defense rested. At that point, the state asked the judge to declare a mistrial, arguing that what the defense lawyer did was prejudicial and not allowed by the law. Essentially, the defense lawyer placed Johnson’s entire case, including the assertions to which the man would have testified, into the opening statement, all the while offering no evidence to back up this version of events and protecting Johnson from examination on the witness stand by the prosecution.

Although the defense opposed the request, the trial judge granted the mistrial. After that, Johnson sought a dismissal of the murder indictment against him. Trying him again, he argued, would violate double jeopardy. The events that unfolded at the 2015 trial did not require the judge’s declaring a mistrial, so another trial on the same charge would amount to double jeopardy. The judge denied the request for dismissal.

Johnson appealed but was again unsuccessful. Trial judges have various options to “cure” the problems raised by statements like Johnson’s opening. The judge can give extra latitude to the prosecution in its closing statement to address the prejudicial parts of the opening statement. Sometimes, a judge can even tell the jury to ignore an opening statement completely. When none of these options are workable, however, a mistrial may be necessary.

That, in essence, is what took place in Johnson’s case. For both the prosecution and the defense, the opening statements at trial are powerful tools. The defense’s opening statement in this case laid out a long description of what Johnson alleged to be the truth regarding his connection to the victim and her possessions. It was detailed and coherent. When Johnson refused to testify, the state was basically “sandbagged.” The prosecution could try to overcome this narrative in its own closing statement, but this might actually have the effect of further confusing the jury instead of making things clearer. In the trial judge’s opinion, which the appeals court decided to uphold, neither giving special jury instructions nor giving latitude to the prosecution in making its closing statement was sufficient because there was “no way to erase the potential infection of the jurors’ minds.” Telling the jurors to totally ignore the defense’s opening was not an option because that would wipe out other parts of the opening statement that were not prejudicial and entirely allowable.

In some cases, like Johnson’s, an accused person may face a re-trial even after his previous trial ended in a mistrial. In other situations, though, the law’s protection against double jeopardy may shield you from facing another trial. Whether you are facing an initial trial or a re-trial, you need experienced criminal defense counsel on your side. Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has spent many years defending the rights of the accused and helping them obtain fair trials. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

Maryland Court Vacates “Affray” Conviction in Criminal Case, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 20, 2016

Maryland Court Rules Second Indictment Violates Double Jeopardy Clause, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Feb. 18, 2016

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