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Court of Appeals will review judge’s ‘CSI effect’ jury instruction

Maryland’s top court will consider whether a judge’s television crime drama-inspired jury instruction that prosecutors need not present forensic evidence to prove guilt was a harmless mistake, given that the victim’s compelling testimony left jurors with no reasonable doubt that the defendant had robbed and assaulted her.

The Court of Appeals this month agreed to hear Devon Taylor’s argument through counsel that the judge’s instruction had unfairly tipped the scales in the prosecution’s favor by implying that the jury should give the victim’s testimony added weight in the absence of DNA linking him to the crime.

The high court’s consideration of Taylor’s appeal marks its latest foray into the propriety of jury instructions designed to combat the “CSI effect” – the theory that jurors have been conditioned by television programs such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” to expect to hear scientific evidence conclusively linking a defendant to a crime.

The resulting, and recurring, legal question is how can judges make it clear to juries that forensic evidence is not required to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt while not leaving the impression that jurors should favor eyewitness and victim testimony in the absence of such evidence.

In Taylor’s case, the intermediate Court of Special Appeals held that the Wicomico County Circuit Court judge erred in giving the “anti-CSI effect” instruction but that the error was harmless because the victim’s testimony was so detailed and damning.

The Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear Taylor’s appeal in September and to render its decision by Aug. 31, 2021. The case is Devon Jordan Taylor v. State of Maryland, No. 2 September Term 2020.

According to the victim’s trial testimony, Taylor broke into her well-lighted Salisbury apartment at about 1 a.m. on June 13, 2008, prompting her to grab a 12-inch kitchen knife. She said Taylor grabbed her arm but she twisted free, nicking him with the knife.

Taylor then grabbed her purse from the kitchen counter and fled, according to the victim, who was not named in the Court of Special Appeals opinion.

Police soon arrested Taylor based on the victim’s description of him. Officers, however, neither took the knife for forensic testing nor checked for fingerprints on the apartment door.

In closing arguments, Taylor’s trial attorney told the jury that the victim’s testimony was the only evidence the prosecution had.

The judge then instructed the jury that “there is no legal requirement that the state offer scientific evidence as part of its case, such as DNA, fingerprinting, blood typing, fiber analysis, hair follicle analysis, or anything of that nature.”

In addition to robbery and assault, the jury found Taylor guilty of burglary, indecent exposure, malicious destruction of property and theft of under $100. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

In upholding Taylor’s convictions in 2018, the Court of Special Appeals said the judge erred in the anti-CSI effect instruction by not concluding it by reminding the jurors that their responsibility is to determine whether the state has proven, based on the evidence, the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But the error was harmless because forensic evidence, while bolstering the victim’s compelling testimony, “would have been cumulative and thus not essential in the state’s overall case,” the Court of Special Appeals held in its reported 3-0 decision.

Taylor, represented by the Maryland Public Defender’s Office, then sought review by the Court of Appeals.

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