Thursday, March 8, 2007

Harris v. State (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed March 7, 2007. Opinion by Judge J. Frederick Sharer.

Chester Harris was convicted by a jury in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City of automobile manslaughter and related offenses. Although he did not contest the sufficiency of the evidence, he raised three issues on appeal:

1. Whether the trial court properly accepted the jury’s verdict where the record does not show that the jury was sworn.

2. Whether the trial court abused its discretion in restricting defense counsel’s closing argument.

3. Whether the trial court abused its discretion in admitting photographic evidence.

Following jury selection, the court assigned a forelady but then, anticipating a suppression motion, excused the jury through lunch. The trial transcript shows no indication that the jury was ever sworn in upon their return. There is conflicting authority on whether the failure to administer the jury oath is a jurisdictional defect that nullifies the verdict. However, as no Maryland authority was found, the Court relied on the strong presumption that judges and court clerks . . . properly perform their duties, and such presumption also applies to the trial court’s duty to be certain that the jury was sworn. The Court held that, while the record was not sufficient to establish conclusively that the jury was sworn, they were satisfied with the court’s references to its recollection of the swearing of the jury, and Harris’ failure to offer evidence to the contrary result in Harris having failed to carry his burden of persuasion.

Harris next complains that the trial court erred in restricting his summation relating to the reliability of eyewitness testimony. In summation, defense counsel undertook an attack on the reliability of eyewitness testimony. The trial court sustained the prosecutor’s objections to the attack, warning defense counsel that he could not refer to other cases. Although defense counsel protested that he was not referring to another specific case, the trial court found that his closing argument referred to other cases "indirectly" and ordered counsel to avoid such references. This Court found that the trial court acted within its broad discretion in limiting even inferential references to unrelated cases and circumstances.

Finally, Harris challenged three photographs of the victim at the scene which were admitted into evidence, arguing that the photographs were unduly prejudicial because they provoked an emotional response. The Court reasoned that photographs may be relevant and possess probative value even though they often illustrate something that has already been presented in testimony. Further, the Court held the trial judge engaged in the appropriate balancing in admitting the photos, as the photos were illustrative of the graphic testimony presented by the responding firefighter/paramedic.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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