Recently the highest court in Maryland reinstated the murder conviction (link requires Daily Record login) of a defendant whose conviction had been overturned by the Court of Special Appeals. In White v. State, the defendant was charged in Maryland with a murder in which the body was actually discovered in Washington, D.C.. The Court held that the State’s Attorney’s argument to the jury as to what a hypothetical D.C. jury would do with the case if the Maryland jury acquitted and he was then retried in D.C. – and what the defense’s arguments would be if the case got that far – was not an improper argument.
The Court of Appeals’ decision demonstrates just how important it is to develop a strong case for trial; the State is given tremendous leeway to make arguments that create an unfair bias for the criminal defendant facing trial. An experienced attorney is necessary both to develop that trial strategy, and to push back against the State’s power.
At trial, White’s counsel argued with regard to the murder charge that his client faced, that there was no evidence as to where the fatal gunshots actually occurred; the shots could have been fired in Maryland or in the District of Columbia. As such, according to White, since it is the State’s burden of proving that the fatal shot occurred in Maryland, the jury was required to convict.
The State countered White, essentially arguing that the defendant would argue to a D.C. jury the opposite – that there was no evidence that the crime occurred in D.C. – and that a D.C. jury might not convict because of the same argument. The State’s Attorney argued:
Here in Maryland. And [Petitioner’s counsel] wants you to say, hey, let D.C. deal with the murder. Well, you know, as if D.C. doesn’t have enough murders, number one. Number two, would they even handle it. Well, lets see. The Charles County Sheriff’s Office has had to respond in Southeast D.C., their forensic science unit had to respond up into Southeast D.C. Lets see. Do you think D.C. is going to handle this case? Of course not.
And one thing that [Petitioner’s counsel] is not telling you, okay, see, he wants you to think that, you know, D.C. ought to handle this case, and you know, whatever you do, say, you know what, we don’t know, we think that D.C. should handle the case, and somehow this case is doing to go to D.C. Well, that’s a possibility. That’s a possibility. One, I don’t think D.C.’s going to do it. But one thing you need to know. Everything I say about why this case should be in Maryland, when this case goes to D.C., see that jury, those twelve people sitting up there in your position on that date, if that ever comes, okay, they’ve got to make the whole decision. They’re not going to know anything. And [Petitioner’s counsel’s] going to get up there and pound on the rail in front of them- – everything happened in Maryland, everything happened in Maryland. You can’t find him guilty here in D.C., they just found the body here.
It’s a trick, ladies and gentleman. That’s exactly what it is. [Petitioner] tricked [the victim] out of his life, just like he told [his fellow detainee in the Charles County Detention Center]. Don’t let him trick you out of handling this case. I know it might be easy to pass the buck and not make the hard decisions that have to be made sometimes, but if justice is going to be done in this case, you all are going to have to do it. That’s just the reality of it, and I’m sure, you’ve taken your oath and you’re willing to do that.
White’s attorney did not object to the State’s argument concerning jurisdiction.
The Court of Appeals noted that “[t]he State presented overwhelming evidence that Petitioner participated in the kidnapping, armed robbery, and murder of the victim, whose body was found in the District of Columbia three days after he was shot and kidnapped in Waldorf, Maryland.” (emphasis added). While it is not clear whether that interpretation of the evidence that White participated in the crime outweighed, in the Court’s reasoning, the Court only focused on whether or not the State could point out that the defense attorney would make the opposite argument if the case went to trial in the District. The Court did not address whether the State’s argument undermined their burden of proof by arguing that the jury should make a finding that the crime occurred in Maryland based on the fact that the defendant would not be convicted if tried in D.C.
While the Court of Appeals clearly did not feel the need to address the issue, there is a strong basis for a finding that the State’s argument undermined the standard of proof required to convict the defendant of the murder charge. In effect, the State reduced its burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the crime occurred in Maryland. The State essentially argued that, even if they didn’t prove the jurisdictional component of the case, you should ignore that, because it might be equally difficult to prove in a D.C. Court. Such an argument is improper, and could be grounds for further appeals through the Federal Courts.
Notably, the case was considered on a “plain error” standard of review. If there was an objection to the State’s argument, the issue could have been addressed de novo, a standard that could have provided the defendant with a better chance of success. If you are charged with a crime, contact an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney to ensure that all of your rights are protected.