What the Right of a Maryland Defendant to ‘Be Present at all Stages of a Criminal Trial’ Means and How that Right Can Help

A criminal defendant has many rights under the U.S. and Maryland constitutions. Article 5 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights says that a criminal defendant has the right to be physically present at every stage of his trial. This right is very important because, sometimes, a judge will misconstrue, forget, overlook or ignore this rule and engage in something that qualifies as a “stage” of the trial outside the accused person’s presence.

When that happens, that’s often considered a violation of the accused person’s fundamental rights and may often trigger a right to a new trial. Of course, utilizing your rights (and sometimes the violations of them) to your maximum benefit requires in-depth knowledge of the law, so it pays to have an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney on your side.

To see how this can work to an accused person’s benefit, look at the case of K.M. In the summer of 2016, two Baltimore police officers investigated a tip about a man and a handgun. The officers spotted K.M., and began following him and his girlfriend. Eventually they stopped the couple and, inside a diaper bag, the officers found a loaded Glock 19 with live rounds inside it, along with an additional magazine.

That led to a trial and K.M. facing several weapons charges. The first trial ended in a mistrial. At a second trial, the jury asked several questions of the judge. First, they wanted extra instruction on the meaning of “possession.” Second, they wanted to know more about the definition of “knowingly.” The jury’s third note asked, “what do we do if we are not unanimous on all counts?”

Unlike the first two notes, when the judge consulted with both sides before responding, the judge, without informing either side, simply answered the third note by instructing the jury to go to lunch, return at 1:00 and continue deliberation at that time. Immediately after lunch, the jury returned its verdict: guilty on one charge.

K.M. appealed and was successful in his appeal. The success of his appeal was tied to the specifics of the way the judge communicated with the jury. When a judge gets a communication from a jury and the judge wants to communicate back, the judge is obliged to notify the prosecution and the defense. In K.M.’s case, when the judge told the jury to go to lunch, come back at 1:00 and then resume deliberating the judge had engaged in what the law calls an ex parte communication. Under Maryland law, the judge’s reply also amounted to failing “to promptly notify the parties about the jury’s note.”

By failing to notify the parties promptly, the judge in the second trial violated K.M.’s right to be present at all stages of his trial. This error required giving K.M. a new trial.

Even if you didn’t see the error in K.M.’s trial (before we told you,) don’t feel badly. It’s very reasonable to imagine that the judge’s note to the jury about going to lunch might seem like a trivial thing that would have no impact on the outcome of the case. Rest assured, though, your experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney would spot that error and know what to do about it.

For advice and advocacy upon which you can steadfastly rely, retain Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi, who has been providing effective representation to accused people in Maryland for many years. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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