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Court of Special Appeals overturns murder verdict

Maryland’s intermediate appeals court Thursday overturned a first-degree murder conviction in Baltimore, saying the trial judge had violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial by asking prospective jurors if they could convict someone without scientific evidence.

That question illegally suggested, even before the trial began, that Jamar Anderson was guilty of having shot John Person to death in August 2008, the Court of Special Appeals held. In its 3-0 decision, the court also overturned Anderson’s conviction for attempting to kill Alethea Hawkins on that same summer night.

The decision, which sends the case back for a new trial, was the latest judicial ruling involving what has become known as the “CSI effect” in criminal trials.

The “effect” holds that jurors and prospective jurors, having watched TV crime dramas — such as CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” — arrive at court expecting the prosecution to present DNA or other scientific evidence conclusively linking the defendant to the crime. If the prosecution fails to present such evidence, the disappointed jury would likely vote for acquittal.

To counteract this presumed effect, judges have often taken to instructing jurors that prosecutors are not legally bound to present scientific evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Maryland’s top court, in a landmark ruling on the effect last year, overturned a conviction because the trial judge in that case had asked prospective jurors to rise if they were “of the opinion or belief that you cannot convict a defendant without scientific evidence.”

The Court of Appeals, in Charles & Drake v. Maryland, said the improper question “suggested that the jury’s only option was to convict, regardless of whether scientific evidence was adduced.”

In its decision Thursday, the Court of Special Appeals noted that Baltimore City Circuit Judge David W. Young’s question of the prospective jurors in Anderson’s case was similar to the inquiry the high court had invalidated

Young asked would-be jurors if any of them were “currently of the opinion or belief that you cannot convict a defendant without scientific evidence, regardless of the evidence in the case and regardless of the instruction that I give you as to the law.” Young then told prospective jurors who held that view to stand, the Court of Special Appeals stated in its unreported opinion.

“The jury question in this case was very nearly identical to the types of ‘CSI questions’ disapproved of by the Court of Appeals and this court,” Judge James A. Kenney III wrote for the Court of Special Appeals. “Accordingly, we will vacate the judgment and remand this case for a new trial.”

Anderson’s attorney, Michael R. Braudes, said the Court of Special Appeals decision was not “a difficult one” due to the similarity of Young’s question to the one the high court found invalid in the Charles & Drake case.

But Braudes added that the seeming prohibition on CSI-type questions might not be absolute.

He cited the Court of Appeals Aug. 18 ruling Atkins v. Maryland that an “investigative techniques” instruction to the jury might not always be improper.

The Atkins decision “kind of complicates things,” said Braudes, who works in the appellate division of the state public defender’s office. “With respect to both jury instructions and voir dire questions, the law is not completely settled. But what is clear is that trial judges must be extremely careful and risk reversal if they either instruct the jury on this topic or question prospective jurors about it.”

Brian S. Kleinbord, who heads the criminal appeals division at the Maryland Attorney General’s office, said he is reviewing the Court of Special Appeals opinion and has not decided whether to appeal.

He noted Maryland’s high court last month agreed to hear the state’s request that it review a prior Court of Special Appeals decision striking down a CSI-effect question. The Court of Appeals has not set a date for arguments in that case, Maryland v. Stringfellow, No. 62 September Term 2011.

According to trial testimony, Anderson and two other men got into an expletive-laden argument with Hawkins, who had called the police after seeing them on the balcony of a neighbor’s apartment on Aug. 6, 2008.

The men returned the next night at about 11, when Hawkins was standing outside her apartment with Person, her cousin.

The gunshots that soon followed missed Hawkins but hit Person. He died in a hospital about 10 days later, having never regained consciousness.

On October 14, 2009, a Baltimore City Circuit Court jury — which was impaneled after answering the “CSI effect” question — found Anderson guilty of the first-degree murder of Person, the attempted murder of Hawkins and using a handgun in a violent crime. Anderson was sentenced to two life sentences plus 20 years.

He then appealed to the Court of Special Appeals.

Chief Judge Peter B. Krauser and Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff joined Kenney’s opinion. Kenney, a retired judge, was sitting by special assignment.