If you or a loved one is facing trial on major felony charges, there are many things you can reasonably expect to face, including skillful law enforcement officers and knowledgeable, aggressive prosecutors. One thing you should not have to face is testimony against you when you are not allowed to confront and cross-examine the witness. By having a knowledgeable Maryland criminal lawyer on your side, you can enhance your chances that the evidence you will have to overcome is only the evidence that is admissible under the law.
One recent example of a defendant obtaining a reversal based upon such improper evidence was the trial of a man charged with first-degree murder in connection with a fatal shooting in the parking lot of a Salisbury motel as a party broke up. According to the state’s case, the defendant was accompanied by three accomplices when he shot the 17-year-old victim. Two of the alleged accomplices, Larry and Ky-Shir, asserted their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, and the third struck a plea deal and agreed to testify against the defendant.
At the defendant’s trial, two police officers testified. They testified about statements that Larry and Ky-Shir had made to them. In those statements, the alleged accomplices had attempted to provide alibis but had made inconsistent statements concerning their whereabouts on the night of the killing. The police also testified that Ky-Shir identified the defendant as the shooter.
The defendant’s lawyer objected, but the trial judge allowed the testimony into evidence anyway. The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder.
The defendant appealed, and the Court of Special Appeals reversed the conviction. The problem that required throwing out the jury’s decision came back to the police officers’ testimony. One of the key things that worked in the defendant’s favor was a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court case, Crawford v. Washington, in which the high court declared that “testimonial statements by a nontestifying witness” are generally not admissible. (They can be admissible in a minority of situations if the witness was unavailable to testify, and the defendant had an opportunity to cross-examine that unavailable witness.)
The reason for this rule is as basic as the Bill of Rights itself. The Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to confront and cross-examine their accusers. By allowing a third party (like a law enforcement officer) to testify regarding what a non-testifying witness (like an alleged accomplice) said, the process would essentially allow the state to present the testimony it wanted without ever giving the defendant the chance to confront and cross-examine the actual person who made the underlying statement.
The law is clear that some statements to police officers can be admissible without violating the Sixth Amendment, but certain others are definitely Confrontation Clause violations. For example, if the officer testifies about a statement made when “the primary purpose of the interrogation is to enable police assistance to meet an ongoing emergency,” that’s generally admissible. However, if there isn’t an emergency, and the primary purpose of the interrogation is “to establish or prove past events potentially relevant to later criminal prosecution,” that is prohibited.
That’s what happened in this defendant’s case, which is why the trial court should not have allowed the statements into evidence. There was no emergency when the police interviewed the alleged accomplices. The officers simply were trying to obtain evidence that would help them solve the murder and allow the state to prosecute the shooter.
There are numerous protections afforded to criminal defendants under the law. Retaining experienced criminal defense counsel can help you take advantage of these protections to ensure that you receive a fair trial. Skilled Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has been working on behalf of the accused, striving to provide them with a robust and reliable defense. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
More blog posts:
Baltimore Man’s Conviction Overturned Due to Trial Court’s Refusal to Allow Him to Confront Interpreters, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, June 8, 2016
Sixth Amendment Right of Confrontation in Maryland, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, March 15, 2014