In TV courtroom dramas, the critical moment in the case – the one that dramatically turns the case to expose the guilty party and ensure justice for all – almost always happens at or near the end of the actual trial. In real life, the “key” moment in your case can happen at any point in your trial and can even happen before the trial starts. What this should tell you is that it is vitally important to have skilled Maryland criminal defense counsel on your side at every step of the process.
One of those extremely important, but sometimes overlooked, pre-trial procedures is voir dire. This is the point in the process when the judge asks the potential jurors a series of questions. The answers to these questions may help the opposing sides in determining which potential jurors should be ruled out from the jury pool.
Given how extraordinarily important jury selection can be in determining whether or not your final outcome will be “guilty” or “not guilty,” it is vital that the right questions get asked, and get asked in the right way. A failure may mean that you are stuck facing a jury that is not really impartial and unbiased.
Because this is so very important, Maryland has some very specific rules regarding how trial judges must phrase questions. For example, if John Doe is facing an armed robbery charge, Maryland law allows his trial judge to ask potential jurors, “Do any of you have strong feelings about the crime of armed robbery?” This is called a permissible “strong feelings” question. The judge may not ask jurors “Does any member of the jury panel have such strong feelings about [armed robbery] that it would be difficult for you to fairly and impartially weigh the facts?” That is called a compound “strong feelings” question, and it is impermissible.
How Improper Phrasing Can Get You a New Trial
An example of how this can matter to you is the recent case of G.C., a man on trial for burglary and theft charges. Despite the defense lawyer’s objection, the judge asked the potential jurors during voir dire if anyone on the panel had “any strong feelings about the offense of burglary to the point where you could not render a fair and impartial verdict based on the evidence?” The judge also asked a nearly identical question regarding the crime of theft. No one on the panel said “yes.”
G.C. was convicted and his case went all the way to the highest court in the state. The Court of Appeals ruled for the accused man. That ruling stated that the law requires trial judges to ask proper “strong feelings” questions during voir dire. In G.C.’s case, the judge asked improper compound “strong feeling” questions and refused the defense’s request to ask proper “strong feelings” questions. This, the high court ruled, was an “abuse of discretion” by the trial judge. When a trial judge commits an abuse of discretion like this and the defendant is later convicted, then the defendant is entitled to a new trial, which is what G.C. got.
To protect your rights at every point in your criminal trial, put the power of knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi on your side. Our office offers many years of experience providing the finest in defense representation to our clients. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.