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Montgomery County judge denial of criminal defendant’s mistrial motions affirmed.

Choate v. State

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland recently affirmed a Montgomery County Circuit judge’s ruling denying Appellant’s motions for mistrial. The Court held that the grant of a mistrial is not warranted when the defendant has not suffered irreversible prejudice[1] and when the prosecution’s statements in closing do not create an inference that the defendant should have taken the stand.[2]

This case arises from a trial in which Appellant was convicted of first degree rape and two counts of first degree sexual offense of a Bethesda woman. As a result, he was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. In Appellant’s Brief submitted to the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, he asserts that his two motions for a mistrial were erroneously denied. His first motion, made during State’s closing, asserted that he was in fact prejudiced by the trial court’s ruling allowing the State’s reference to facts not introduced into evidence. Specifically, Appellant cited to the victim’s testimony regarding a screw driver that was allegedly used by Appellant during commission of the crime.

During the State’s case-in-chief, the victim was shown a screw driver found in the van in which Appellant was stopped and arrested. Her testimony indicated that she was unsure whether the screw driver shown to her was the same one used by the Appellant.[3] As a result, the Court ruled that the screw driver would be “admitted as the screwdriver Agent Willis[4] had recovered from the van.” Additionally, the Court prohibited the prosecution from arguing that the screwdriver introduced into evidence was the one used during the attack. Notwithstanding this limiting instruction, however, the prosecution, during closing, argued that “she’s grabbed by the defendant, who holds this screwdriver . . .”. Pursuant to the limiting instruction, the Court instructed the jury to disregard this statement. However, on appeal, the Court found that these statements were permissible concluding that because a reasonable jury could draw an inference that the screw driver presented during trial was the screw driver Appellant used (and trial counsel was free to argue the opposite) the statement did not give rise to a mistrial based on the Maryland Court’s standard of review.
The second motion, made during the State’s rebuttal, concerned Appellant’s contention that the State created an improper inference to the jury regarding Appellant’s decision not to testify. It is well settled law in Maryland that a criminal defendant has the right to decline to testify and not be penalized for this decision.[5] Appellant cited to a portion of the State’s rebuttal that “[t]here were only two people there” and that, the victim “came in and . . . sat here and . . . told you what happened” as statements that created an unlawful inference that the defendant’s silence should be seen as guilt. However, this excerpt of the rebuttal was a small portion of the five pages containing the State’s arguments bolstering the victim’s credibility because she was the only other witness to the crime other than the Appellant. As such, the Court found that the Montgomery County judge did not abuse his discretion in denying trial counsel’s second mistrial motion.

[1] See Choate v. State, at 10 (quoting Behrel v. State, 151 Md. App. 64, 142, 823 A.2d 696, 741, cert. denied, 376 Md. 546, 831 A.2d 5 (2003) (“A mistrial is . . . an extreme sanction that sometimes must be resorted to when such overwhelming prejudice has occurred that no other remedy will suffice to cure the prejudice…the remarks must be a direct and contributing factor that resulted in egregious prejudice to the defendant.”)) available at http://www.mdcourts.gov/opinions/cos/2013/0922s12.pdf.

[2]See id., (the Court, when reviewing “the denial of a motion for mistrial for abuse of discretion . . . will reverse only where “the prejudice to the defendant was so substantial that he was deprived of a fair trial.” Cooley v. State, 385 Md. 165, 173, 867 A.2d 1065, 1069-70 (2005)” available at http://www.mdcourts.gov/opinions/cos/2013/0922s12.pdf.

[3] When shown the screwdriver found by law enforcement, the victim testified, that it “could be [the screwdriver used by the appellant], but I can’t swear that it was.”

[4] Agent Willis was the patrol officer who stopped Appellant, in a van, on a Virginia state highway several hours after the victim reported the crime.

[5] See Md. Dec. of R. art 22; see also Md. Courts and Judicial Proceedings Code Ann. § 9-107.

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