It is not unusual during a trial for an attorney to attempt to get into evidence unrelated to the issues at hand, claiming that opposing counsel had “opened the door” to allow inquiry to an otherwise inadmissible topic. How that doctrine operates in criminal cases in Maryland was explored by Maryland’s highest Court in a case called State of Maryland v. Harry Malik Robertson.
The majority opinion of the Court of Appeals indicates that Robertson was convicted by a jury of being an accessory after the fact to a murder, which occurred during a fight between two groups of college students. The Defendant testified on his own behalf, and his attorney asked him whether he had “ever gotten into any trouble,” either as a juvenile or an adult, and he replied “no.” He also testified that before this incident he had never been arrested.
Over objection, the prosecutor cross-examined the defendant about a previous unrelated fight in which he had been involved, during which one of his friends had pulled a knife. The prosecutor went into the details of that incident, and the defendant insisted he never pulled a knife, but admitted he was suspended from school and transferred to another college. The intermediate appellate court ruled that defense counsel’s original line of questioning did not “open the door” to the State’s inquiry.
The concept of opening the door is a one of basic fairness, to allow a party to meet “fire with fire” and introduce otherwise inadmissible evidence to rebut what has been introduced. The majority of the Court of Appeals held that inquiry into whether the defendant had ever been in “any trouble” was so general as to go beyond involvement in the criminal justice system, and allowed the State to inquire about the defendant’s disciplinary issues in college. However, the majority held it improper for the trial judge not to stop the State from going into the details of the unrelated incident, thereby going beyond what the doctrine of “opening the door” in fairness would allow. The conviction was reversed and a new trial ordered.
Two dissenting judges argued that it was not the trial judge’s job to stop the State from going beyond what was appropriate use of the door that the defense attorney opened, and would have affirmed the conviction.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.