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Defendants’ rights not violated by masked prospective jurors, Md. appeals court says

A defendant’s constitutional right to view prospective jurors as they answer questions about their biases and views on the presumption of innocence was not violated by the pandemic-spurred mandate that they wear masks, Maryland’s second-highest court ruled last week in upholding a triple-murder conviction.

The Sixth Amendment requires only that defendants see the eyes and hear the voices of would-be jurors, the Court of Special Appeals said, adding that any claim to see their mouths and noses was trumped by the compelling need to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler displays a photo of Radee Labeeb Prince, who was later the murder of three people and the attempted murder of two others during an Oct. 18, 2017, workplace shooting rampage at Advanced Granite Solutions in Edgewood. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler displays a photo of Radee Labeeb Prince, who was later the murder of three people and the attempted murder of two others during an Oct. 18, 2017, workplace shooting rampage at Advanced Granite Solutions in Edgewood. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The court rendered its reported 3-0 decision in upholding Radee Prince’s convictions for the murder of three people and the attempted murder of two others during an Oct. 18, 2017, workplace shooting rampage at Advanced Granite Solutions in Edgewood.

Prince argued through counsel that the convictions should be overturned because the Harford County Circuit Court judge refused to have prospective jurors remove their masks so the accused and his counsel could see their facial expressions as they discussed their ability to render a fair verdict against someone charged with so horrendous a crime.

But the Court of Special Appeals said high court decisions that defendants be permitted to “read the faces” of prospective jurors and be “brought face to face” with them are not to be read “literally to require the court to conduct voir dire with unmasked faces (and, more to the point, noses and mouths) during a global pandemic.”

“The phrases ‘face to face’ and ‘read the faces of his jurors’ reinforce the basic requirement that the defendant must be able to see and hear potential jurors when they answer questions, not to impart constitutional significance to the ability to view a potential juror’s entire face,” Judge Douglas R.M. Nazarian wrote for the Court of Special Appeals. “Although we acknowledge that an individual’s facial expressions play a role in nonverbal communication, it was not unreasonable for the (trial) court to observe the constraints posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the paramount importance of public health and safety.”

Prince’s appellate attorney, Assistant Maryland Public Defender Rachel Kamins, said Monday that her office has made no final decision regarding an appeal to the Court of Appeals but that she is “inclined” to seek review.

“I think it is important for prospective jurors’ entire faces to be exposed so that the defendant can make an intelligent decision about which jurors to select to serve on the jury,” Kamins added.

The Maryland attorney general’s office declined to comment on the court’s decision.

Prince’s was among the first jury trials to be held following their resumption in October 2020 after a seven-month suspension to stanch the spread of COVID-19. The Maryland Judiciary’s administrative order of resumption required all courtroom participants to be masked, including prospective jurors.

The mask mandate has since been lifted.

Citing the order, Judge Yolanda L. Curtin denied defense counsel’s request that prospective jurors either remove their masks or be required to wear clear ones during jury selection, or voir dire.

“While I recognize that sometimes body language may dictate some hesitation, often times it is the body language and not necessarily a facial expression,” Curtin said. “I believe that we will be able to see the eyes of the jurors and from part of their nose up and that you will be able to gauge whether or not their responses would suggest that they have a bias and should be disqualified. So, while I recognize you’re noting an objection, I am working in accordance with what has been directed to me.”

On Oct. 28, 2020, the impaneled Harford County Circuit Court jury found Prince guilty of murdering Bayarsaikhan Tudev, 53; Jose Hidalgo Romero, 34; and Enis Mrvoljak, 48. Prince was also convicted of the attempted murder of two other people.

He was sentenced in March 2021 to five consecutive life terms in prison, including three without the possibility of parole.

Prince then sought review by the Court of Special Appeals.

Nazarian was joined in the opinion by Chief Judge Gregory Wells and Judge Terrence M.R. Zic.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Radee Labeeb Prince v. State of Maryland, No. 106 September Term 2021.