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Top court: ‘CSI’ error was harmless in carjacking case

While a trial judge abused his discretion by giving the jury an “anti-CSI effect” instruction, the error was harmless, the state’s top court held.

The Court of Appeals said the judge should not have told a jury before deliberation that the state is not legally required to prove its case through scientific tests. However, because the evidence against the defendant was so strong, the instruction was harmless and did not contribute to Joseph Leon Hall Jr.’s carjacking conviction, the court said.

“The evidence was clear and uncomplicated that Hall was guilty of carjacking the victim,” said Brian S. Kleinbord, chief of the Criminal Appeals Division in the Office of the Maryland Attorney General. “Forensic evidence was not at all an issue in this case, and was only introduced by the defense.”

The instruction, requested by the prosecution, is designed to counteract a tendency by the public to assume people cannot be proven guilty without a conclusive scientific test, like DNA evidence, linking them to the crime, as is often the case in television crime shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

The state’s top court has made similar decisions in the past regarding the anti-CSI jury instructions, beginning with two cases in 2011. Most recently, it held in January that a judge violated Emmanuel Ford Robinson’s right to a fair trial by telling jurors that proof of guilt does not require DNA evidence.

Such an instruction can only be given if the defense has made a “material misstatement of the law” regarding the evidence or the burden of proof, the court said in Robinson. In other words, it’s used when the defense “suggests that the state should have done certain things that were not necessary to prove the case,” Kleinbord said.

Hall’s attorney, Michael T. Torres of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, did not respond to a request for comment.

Hall’s trial was conducted before any of the Court of Appeals’ decisions came down. He was convicted of carjacking and other crimes in 2010. According to court records, Judge Emanuel Brown presided over the trial.

The state conceded to the top court that jury instruction was an abuse of discretion, but said there was enough other evidence in the case to render the error irrelevant.

Hall, however, argued that his interaction with John Kim, whose car was stolen, was a consensual drug deal. He said the state should have provided a photo of Kim’s car being driven that night, a photo of injuries the victim claimed he had sustained or a recording of the Kim’s interview with police picking Hall out in a photo array.

The Court of Appeals said a photograph of Hall driving the car was unnecessary since Hall’s testified that he drove the Kim’s car.

“The image in question would not have shed any light on the issue of how Hall gained control of Kim’s car,” Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote for the court.

The court also said that a lack of interview recordings with police did not affect the case because the victim identified Hall in court.

“Thus, we are convinced that the ‘anti-CSI effect’ jury instruction was of no significance to the verdict,” Watts wrote.

During trial, Kim testified that Hall and another man approached him with guns in October 2008, took his wallet and keys and, with the help of a third person, forced Kim to unlock his car.

With Kim tied up in the back seat, the men drove around to ATMs in Baltimore, withdrawing money with Kim’s bank card.

They finally drove Kim to a rail yard, where Hall returned Kim’s keys, wiped the steering wheel and door handles and told Kim to drive away.

Hall, meanwhile, claimed he was selling 5,000 ecstasy pills to Kim. To pay for it, Kim withdrew cash from an ATM, but could only get $500. The group drove around to several other ATMs, but when Kim could not withdraw any more money, Hall eventually just sold him 500 pills.

Kim went to the police and ultimately identified Hall from a photo array.

The state asked the trial judge for an anti-CSI effect instruction. Hall’s attorney objected, saying the instruction would unfairly influence the jury.

The circuit court judge then gave the following instruction:

“You should consider all of the evidence or lack of evidence in deciding whether a defendant is guilty. However, I instruct you that there is no legal requirement that the State utilize any specific investigative technique or scientific test to prove its case.”

Hall appealed. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed his conviction before the case went before the Court of Appeals.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Joseph Leon Hall Jr. v. State, No. 53, September Term 2013. Argued Feb. 11, 2014. Decided March 25, 2014. Opinion by Watts, J.

Issue:

Did a trial court abuse its discretion by giving a jury an anti-CSI effect instruction before deliberations and was the instruction harmless?

Holding:

The state conceded that the giving the instruction was an abuse of discretion, however, the error was harmless.

Counsel:

Michael T. Torres, Office of The Public Defender, for petitioner; Robert Taylor Jr., Maryland Office of the Attorney General, for respondent.

RecordFax 14-0325-20 (9 pages).