Monday, May 21, 2007

Stewart v. State (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed May 11, 2007--Opinion by Judge Irma Raker, Dissent by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

Stewart was indicted in a multi-count indictment alleging child abuse, second degree sexual offense, third degree sexual offense, and fourth degree sexual offense. The court sentenced him to a term of incarceration of twenty years on the child abuse offense and merged the sexual offenses into the child abuse conviction for sentencing purposes. The single issue in this appeal involves the failure of the circuit court to ask certain questions to the venire panel during voir dire that were requested by defense counsel.

Defense counsel submitted two voir dire documents -- "Defendant's Requested Voir Dire," containing eighteen questions, and "Amended Defendant's Requested Voir Dire," containing fifty-two questions. Defense counsel withdrew the initial voir dire request and substituted the amended version. It is the failure of the trial court to ask the questions on the amended voir dire request that is the subject of this appeal.

In Maryland, the sole purpose of voir dire is to ensure a fair and impartial jury by determining the existence of cause for disqualification and not, as in many other states, to include the intelligent exercise of preemptory challenges. The scope of voir dire and the form of questions propounded rests firmly within the discretion of the trial judge, as it is the responsibility of the trial judge to conduct an adequate voir dire to eliminate from the venire panel prospective jurors who will be unable to perform their duty fairly and impartially and to uncover bias and prejudice. In reviewing the court's exercise of discretion during voir dire, the standard is whether the questions posed and the procedures employed created a reasonable assurance that prejudice would be discovered if present. Further, on review of voir dire, the appellate court looks at the record as a whole to determine whether the matter has been fairly covered.

As to the scope of inquiry and the decision as to whether to permit a particular question, the trial judge is not required, with some limited exceptions, to ask specific questions requested by trial counsel. Questions which are not directed at a specific ground for disqualification, which are merely fishing for information to assist in the exercise of preemptory challegnes, which probe the prospective juror's knowledge of the law, ask a juror to make a specific commitment, or address sentencing considerations are not proper in voir dire.

Here, the record is replete with indications that the court fulfilled its duty to empanel an impartial jury. Therefore, the Court held the trial court did not abuse its discretion in declining to propount appellant's requested voir dire.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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