The Maryland Court of Appeals this month extended the right to a “missing evidence” jury instruction to criminal defendants, even absent a showing of bad faith by the State, in a decision that could have long-reaching effects on evidence practice in criminal cases in the state.
Brassel Alexander has significant experience in addressing evidentiary issues in criminal trials, including the insight of two former prosecutors. Our Maryland criminal law attorneys can protect the rights of individuals accused in any criminal matter.
The Court of Appeals’ decision came in the case of Ashanti Cost v. State, a case in which an inmate being held at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, a Supermax facility in Baltimore, was charged with stabbing another inmate. According to the State’s case, Cost, the defendant, grabbed the another inmate’s clothing through a food slot in a cell door, pulled the other inmate close, and then stabbed him with a six-inch long metal weapon that was similar to an ice pick. Michael Brown, the inmate Cost allegedly stabbed, testified that he bled all over his cell, covering the floor with blood and requiring towels to stop the bleeding. The State initially secured Brown’s cell and took photographs, but then allowed it to be cleaned. All of the potential evidence in the cell was discarded.
At trial, Cost presented an argument, supported by Brown’s medical records, that the injury was not severe. He suggested to the jury that the photographs of Brown’s cell did not actually show a floor coated with blood, but rather, melted red Jell-O. Based on the fact that the State had destroyed any evidence that was in the cell, Cost requested that the trial court give the jury an instruction that it was allowed but not required to infer that the missing evidence would be favorable to the defense. Cost’s request was denied, and although he was acquitted on most counts, he was found guilty of reckless endangerment.
Cost appealed, arguing that the missing evidence was vital to his case, and that he should be entitled to a missing evidence jury instruction, just as the State would have been entitled to had it been Cost that had destroyed evidence. The State countered that, under the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Youngblood v. Arizona, that because there was no evidence of bad faith on the part of the State, such an instruction was not warranted. The Court held that Cost was entitled to a jury instruction on missing evidence. The evidence, according to the Court, was highly relevant to Cost’s case, and was not cumulative or tangential. Under these circumstances, the Court held, a trial court judge is required to provide an instruction to the jury that the jury was permitted, but not required, to draw an inference that the missing evidence would have been unfavorable to the State.
The Court’s finding could have long-ranging effects in Maryland’s trial courts, as it is applied in other settings. For example, crime labs in Maryland and other states have at times lost or destroyed DNA evidence; under the holding in Cost, if the missing evidence is central to the case, a defendant would be entitled to a missing evidence instruction. The future development of this line of caselaw could have a major impact on criminal trials throughout Maryland, as the State is finally held on equal footing with criminal defendants when it comes to the preservation of evidence.
If you find yourself facing criminal charges, contact the experienced Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Brassel Alexander.