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Under Maryland law, in a homicide case the prosecution is allowed to offer evidence of a victim’s character for peacefulness to rebut evidence that the victim was the first aggressor in the incident leading to the victim’s death.
When such evidence can be introduced by the State, and whether it matters to a verdict, was explored by Maryland’s highest Court in a recent opinion called David Leander Ford v. State of Maryland.
The Court of Appeals’ opinion indicates that Ford was tried before a jury for second degree murder. The State argued that Ford escalated an argument with the victim and stabbed him to death.
Defense counsel in his opening statement to the jury indicated that the evidence would show that Ford acted in self-defense.
The State in its case called witnesses who said that Ford started a verbal argument with the victim by commenting about his sister, that Ford then initiated physical contact resulting in punches being thrown, then drew a knife and stabbed the victim and fled.
The prosecutor also elicited testimony, over defense objection, that the victim was a quiet person who was nice to everybody, and was never hostile or nasty.
Police evidence was presented showing that the defendant hid a knife containing his DNA, and admitted after his arrest that he “cut” the victim who he claimed hit him. The defense presented no evidence at trial.
The jury convicted the defendant, which the intermediate appellate Court affirmed.
The Court of Appeals held that the trial judge was in effort when he allowed the prosecution in its case to introduce evidence of the victim’s peaceful nature.
The law provides that such evidence may be admitted to rebut “evidence” that the victim was the aggressor. Defense counsel’s opening statement was not “evidence,” and the Court found that counsel’s statements did not “open the door” to allow such evidence to be presented.
However, the Court found that the introduction of this evidence was “harmless error.”
The Court was satisfied that the evidence of Ford’s guilt was so overwhelming that beyond a reasonable doubt it did not influence the verdict against the defendant.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.