In a recent consolidated case, a Maryland court considered waiver of jury trial in two unrelated cases. In one case, the defendant was accused of sexual assault and rape and was convicted after a bench trial. Before the trial, the defense attorney explained the right to jury trial to the defendant and asked the defendant if he understood he was electing not to have a jury trial. The defendant said he understood.
After his conviction, the defendant petitioned for post-conviction relief and got permission to file a belated appeal. The conviction was reversed as to third-degree sexual offense but was affirmed on other counts. The intermediate appellate court held that the trial court had adequately announced its finding of waiver, but the validity of the waiver was not preserved for appeal.
The Court of Appeals agreed to review two cases to determine what showed compliance with the rule that a trial judge must determine and announce on the record that a knowing and voluntary waiver was made by the defendant. It also reviewed whether a defense attorney’s failure to object to a trial court’s failure to determine the waiver was knowing and voluntary precluded the case from review.
In a recent case, the court had ruled that a trial judge has to comply fully with Md. Rule 4-246(b), which requires the judge to inquire into a defendant’s waiver of jury trial and announce a finding about whether the waiver was made knowingly and voluntarily. The appellate court in this case explained that, in spite of the clear ruling, there were continued challenges regarding the right to jury trial.
The court explained that the right to jury trial is fundamental. The Rule has a two-step procedure: (1) asking for an open-court examination of the defendant on the record, and (2) the court’s determination and announcement on the record that a waiver is made knowingly and voluntarily. Failure to comply is a reason to reverse the judgment.
In the rape case at hand, the defense attorney had asked the defendant if he was waiving his jury trial, but nonetheless the trial judge had not made an explicit finding that this waiver was knowing and voluntary. The court was required to evaluate the waiver and announce its findings about both “knowingly” and “voluntarily” on the record.
“Knowingly” means the defendant shows understanding and awareness. Voluntariness means that an intentional action is taken with unrestrained free will. The defendant has to understand the right to jury trial, and a voluntary waiver must not be coerced or influenced by mind-altering substances. Even if a colloquy is thorough, the trial judge must also make findings rather than simply stating it accepts the waiver.
The trial judge had failed to comply with the rule. There was no explicit statement that the waiver was voluntary and knowing. Simply stating that the court was satisfied as to the waiver of the right to jury trial was insufficient. Generally, a complaining party has to have preserved the issue for appellate review by making a contemporaneous objection. In this case, no objection was made.
The court here decided the issue because of the constitutional significance. However, it ruled that in future cases, the appellate courts would only consider cases in which a contemporaneous objection was raised.
In a cross-appeal, the State had also asked the court to determine whether it was improper for the Court of Special Appeals to vacate the defendant’s conviction for third-degree sexual assault. The court agreed with the intermediate appellate court that the evidence was not sufficient to support the conviction.
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