A judge’s television crime drama-inspired jury instruction that prosecutors need not present forensic evidence to prove guilt was a harmful error, Maryland’s top court ruled Friday in overturning a man’s robbery and assault conviction and 30-year prison sentence.
In its 5-2 decision, the Court of Appeals said the judge’s instruction had unfairly tipped the scales in the prosecution’s favor by implying that the jury should give the alleged victim’s testimony added weight in the absence of DNA evidence linking Devon Taylor to the crime.
The court noted that the prosecution’s case against Taylor was based largely on the alleged victim’s testimony.
The Court of Appeals’ decision marked 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.
A judge’s “anti-CSI effect instruction” is triggered if the defense overemphasizes at trial the prosecution’s absence of forensic evidence, the high court said. In Taylor’s case, defense counsel did not put “undue emphasis on the lack of forensic evidence” so no “curative” anti-CSI effect instruction was required, the court added in sending the case back for a new trial.
The judge also erred by not erasing the instruction’s potential bias toward the prosecution with the admonition to the jury that the state must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the court stated.
In its decision, the high court reversed the intermediate Court of Special Appeals’ holding that the Wicomico County Circuit Court judge’s error in giving the “anti-CSI effect” instruction was harmless because the victim’s testimony was so detailed and damning.
The Court of Appeals disagreed with that assessment.
“He (Taylor) was connected to the home invasion only by his identification by a single witness, who likely had less than a minute to view her assailant’s face, once uncovered, and who had never seen him before,” Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote for the court.
“The identification, in the case of the photo array, occurred a month after the incident; the in-court identification (during which the victim stated that Mr. Taylor ‘looked a little different’) occurred six months afterwards,” McDonald added. “In sum, this record does not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the erroneous instruction had no influence on the verdict.”
David Jaros, a University of Baltimore School of Law professor, praised the court’s ruling.
“The decision reinforces the fundamental principle that the state must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt and it takes seriously the concern than an anti-CSI effect instruction inappropriately suggests to jurors that they should ignore holes in the prosecution’s case,” said Jaros, who teaches criminal law, criminal procedure and evidence.
The Maryland attorney general’s office declined to comment on the decision.
Assistant Maryland Public Defender Allison P. Brasseaux did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment on the decision.
McDonald was joined in the opinion by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Judges Michele D. Hotten, Joseph M. Getty and Jonathan Biran.
Biran also wrote a concurring opinion.
In dissent, Judge Shirley M. Watts said Taylor’s counsel failed to object sufficiently at trial to the judge’s instruction and, therefore, did not preserve the issue for appeal. The defense attorney’s general statement that he “’would just except to the court’s scientific evidence instruction’… failed to identify any ground for the exception,” Watts wrote in the dissent joined by Judge Brynja M. Booth.
McDonald, writing for the high court’s majority, found trial counsel’s objection sufficient for appeal because the only time the judge had referred to scientific evidence was in the anti-CSI effect instruction.
According to the alleged 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 alleged victim, who was not named in the Court of Appeals opinion.
Police soon arrested Taylor based on the alleged 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.
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 then sought review by the Court of Appeals.
The high court rendered its decision in Devon Jordan Taylor v. State of Maryland, No. 2 September Term 2020.