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During the process known as voir dire in Maryland jury trials, prospective jurors are asked questions by the judge in an effort to determine whether the jurors can be fair and impartial. In criminal cases, trial judges are often asked to inquire whether jurors have “strong feelings” about certain matters. The recent opinion in Gordon Alexander Collins v. State authored by Senior Judge Charles Moylan inquires whether a “relatively modest glitch in the framing of a single question totally derails an otherwise flawless criminal trial.”
The case as described by Judge Moylan was a “slam dunk for the prosecution.” The victims were in bed and heard a burglar in their home, and called 911. The police saw the defendant walking with a garbage bag which he later discarded nearby, which contained the stolen items. At trial the police testified, the defense offered no evidence, and the jury after foty minute’s deliberation convicted the defendant.
Before the jury was selected, however, the defense attorney requested that the Judge as the jurors whether they had “strong feelings” about the offenses of burglary and theft (which Judge Moylan suggested would universally be answered Yes by anyone who is against crime). The trial Judge asked these questions of the jury, but made them compound by adding “to the point where you could not render a fair and impartial verdict based on the evidence.” The defense on appeal pointed to an earlier case which held that on this topic which was not otherwise addressed in voir dire questions, it was improper not to ask the simple question so that jurors who said yes could be subject to further questioning to see if their strong feelings may prevent them from being impartial.
Here, Judge Moylan noted, the judge followed up these “strong feelings” questions by asking jurors if something had happened to them in the past which would prevent them finding guilt or innocence under any circumstances, or if they had pre-conceived feelings about these issues. The judge went on to ask specifically if jurors had been victims of a crime, which upon individual questioning led to some prospective jurors being excused. Even after the jury was seated, just to make sure, the judge asked the simple “strong feelings” question about these crimes and got no response.
Under the totality of these circumstances, the Court had not trouble holding that the issue had been fully and fairly explored by the voir dire questioning, and the defendant was not entitled to a new trial.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.