When the Prosecution is — and Isn’t — Able to Bring in Certain Proof Based on Your ‘Opening the Door’ to that Evidence

Criminal trials can be full of many nuances and “shades of gray.” For example, some kinds of evidence are generally inadmissible, but may occasionally be admissible under specific special circumstances. As an accused person standing trial, the difference between success and defeat may be your ability to persuade the court that certain pieces of potentially harmful information are inadmissible as opposed to admissible. Winning these smaller battles within the larger context of your trial can be vital, and often requires in-depth knowledge of the law, so be sure you have a capable and knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorney advocating for you.

As an example of the concept discussed in broad stokes above, the case of N.H. is very educational. The crime that triggered N.H.’s prolonged legal proceedings was a murder outside a Baltimore bar. D.C., who was a friend of N.H., had gotten ejected from the bar by at least four bouncers, including M.C. and T.M. Eventually, T.M. and M.C. became involved with a physical confrontation with N.H. M.C. suffered a non-lethal knife cut to the face, but T.M. got slashed in the throat and died from blood loss.

The state put N.H. on trial for first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder. N.H. asserted he was just defending himself. In his opening statement, N.H.’s defense lawyer told the jury that N.H. was at bar to find new customers for his tattoo business that, according to the lawyer, was N.H.’s main source of income. Later in the trial, the state tried to admit part of a statement where the accused man stated that he was in the bar to sell cocaine.

Unrelated bad acts usually aren’t admissible at trial

Normally, evidence of a defendant’s unrelated “bad act” (like selling illegal drugs) isn’t admissible at trial. In this situation, though, the trial judge ruled that the defense had done what the law calls “opening the door” by indicating that N.H. was at the bar simply to market his tattoo business. The jury convicted the accused man on both the murder and attempted murder charges.

N.H. appealed and secured a victory in the Court of Special Appeals last year. Very recently, the Court of Appeals agreed with the Court of Special Appeals that N.H. deserved a new trial. This decision was an important victory for accused people in Maryland and highlights just how limited the legal concept of “opening the door” is when it comes to converting otherwise inadmissible evidence into admissible proof.

The high court laid out several circumstances where the “opening the door” concept is not triggered, and the prosecution cannot use otherwise inadmissible evidence. One of those circumstances is a lack of proportionality. Generally, statements admitted into evidence are considered weightier and more valuable than those made in opening statements, especially when the judge instructs the jury to consider only the evidence and not the two sides’ opening statements (as happened in this trial.)

In other words, simply because N.H.’s lawyer told the jury during openings that N.H. was at the bar to market his tattoo business, that did not allow the state bring into evidence N.H.’s statement about dealing cocaine at the bar. If the jury followed its instructions, the statement about the tattoo business would have zero influence on their deliberations. The latter was far more damaging, as it cast N.H. as a drug dealer rather than an ordinary tattoo artist, and likely hurt his credibility with the jury substantially. Those two things were not proportionate.

Comparing ‘probative value’ to the risk of ‘unfair prejudice’

The prosecution had another problem. The law does not allow evidence to be admitted if its chances of unfairly prejudicing the jury are much greater than the odds that it will help the jury decide a relevant issue, which is called its “probative value.” Obviously, being associated with the sale of illegal drugs is something that will hurt an accused person’s credibility with many jurors. On the other hand, whether or not N.H. was at the bar to sell cocaine did very little to shed light on whether or not he attacked the bouncers or was simply acting in self-defense. So, the potential prejudicial value was high, and the probative value was low. When that happens, a piece of evidence should be kept out.

Successfully defending against criminal charges involves many steps. One of the essential ones is making sure that harmful but inadmissible proof never makes it in front of your jury. For this and other essential needs, rely upon experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi, who has been diligently representing the accused in Maryland for many years. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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