Professor Warnken Interviewed About COA’s reversal of Two High Profile First Degree Murder Convictions
On June 17, 2011, the Court of Appeals of Maryland reversed a first degree murder conviction in a high profile case out of Baltimore City. The two Defendants were convicted of beheading three young family members. The first trial resulted in a hung jury when the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The second trial resulted in first degree murder convictions, which were the subject of this appeal. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the convictions. The Court of Appeals then reversed the convictions in a 4-to-3 decision. The basis for the reversal was the trial judge’s failure to disclose five jury notes to the Defendants and to defense counsel. Each of the five notes addressed the evidence in the case. The Court of Appeals unanimously held that the judge’s conduct constituted legal error. The State argued that even though the trial judge committed legal error, the convictions should be affirmed because the errors were harmless errors, and the Court could find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the errors did not influence the jury’s guilty verdicts. The three dissenters in the Court of Appeals agreed with the State’s harmless error argument.
Professor Warnken noted that (1) Defendants have a constitutional right to be present whenever there is any communication between the judge and the jury, (2) Defendants have a constitutional right to full disclosure of the content of any juror communication, and (3) Defendants have a constitutional right to be represented by counsel during such jury communication. In this case, because the judge committed legal error in failing to disclose the jury notes, the ultimate issue on appeal was whether the error of non-disclosure of the jury notes was harmless beyond reasonable doubt. When the jury communication relates to the evidence in the case, there is a high probability that the error of non-disclosure is not a harmless error. Warnken pointed out that, when Maryland’s highest court rules 4-to-3, that shows that the issue is close and can be argued either way.