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Collins v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

April 21, 2017


          Argued: November 3, 2016

         Circuit Court for Wicomico County Case No. 22-K-13-000746

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, JJ.


          Barbera, C.J.

         "Voir dire, " the French phrase meaning "to say the truth, " describes the preliminary examination of prospective jurors to determine whether they are qualified and suitable to serve as jurors. The voir dire process is critical to ensuring that the courts honor the defendant's right to an impartial jury guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 21 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights.[1]

         We decide in this case whether the voir dire process reasonably assured that Petitioner, Ruben Arnez Collins, was tried before an impartial jury. We conclude that the constitutional standard was satisfied and therefore affirm the judgment of conviction. We use this opportunity, though, to encourage trial judges to adopt certain best practices to help achieve the constitutionally-mandated goal of an impartial jury.


         The Background and Procedural History

         The issue before us does not require an extensive rendition of the factual and procedural underpinnings of this case. It is enough to note that Collins was tried before a jury in the Circuit Court for Wicomico County on charges related to the robbery of a convenience store in Delmar, Maryland. The evidence presented to the jury permitted it to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Collins entered the convenience store brandishing a box cutter, demanded money from the store clerk, and fled with over $100 in cash. The jury found Collins guilty of armed robbery, robbery, second degree assault, theft under $1000, and wear, carry, and transport of a weapon with intent to injure. The court sentenced Collins to twenty years imprisonment for armed robbery and merged the remaining offenses.

         Collins noted an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, arguing, among other claims, that the trial judge had abused his discretion in conducting the voir dire of the prospective jurors. The Court of Special Appeals rejected that argument and in an unreported opinion affirmed the judgment of conviction. We granted Collins's petition for writ of certiorari to review that holding of the Court of Special Appeals.


         The Voir Dire Process in the Present Case

         After the prospective jurors were sworn, [2] the trial judge began the voir dire process with the following: "All right, ladies and gentlemen [of the venire], I'm going to ask you a series of questions; I'll ask them to you as a group. If your answer to any question is yes, please stand up so I may ask you some additional questions." The judge then described the nature of the case to the venire, listing the charges and the name and location of the convenience store where the robbery occurred. The judge did not indicate whether follow-up questions would be asked in open court or at the bench, and did not inform venire members that they could request to answer follow-up questions in relative privacy at the bench.

         No member of the venire responded affirmatively to Questions One through Five. Those questions addressed prior knowledge of the case, predetermined views on guilt, relationship to Collins, relationship to the attorneys, and previous involvement "in the criminal justice system either as the victim of, a witness to or a person accused of a crime such as that with which the Defendant is charged."

         Question Six asked whether any member of the venire or his or her immediate family was employed currently or in the past by a law enforcement agency or a prosecutor's office. That question elicited eleven affirmative responses from the venire. The judge advised those who responded in the affirmative that he would be asking follow-up questions of each of them, individually. At that point, defense counsel asked, "Your Honor, we're not going to the bench?" The court replied, "No." Twice thereafter, as the judge questioned other venirepersons who had answered Question Six in the affirmative, defense counsel asked the judge "that we be permitted to have these answers at the bench." The judge denied both requests.

         The first venireperson to be questioned in open court was Juror 582. The judge asked whether he or a family member was employed by law enforcement. Juror 582 replied that he had been employed with the New York City Police Department from 1984 to 2004. The judge then asked: "Would that affect in any way your ability to fairly and impartially decide a criminal case such as this?" Juror 582 answered "no, " and the judge directed him to take his seat. The judge questioned in the same way the ten other venirepersons who had indicated an affirmative answer to Question Six, asking in some instances for additional detail. Save for Juror 538, each of the others who had responded affirmatively to Question Six advised the judge that, notwithstanding the connection with law enforcement, he or she could fairly and impartially decide the case. The judge brought Juror 538 to the bench for further questioning, asked follow up questions, and, in light of his responses, informed him that he was struck for cause and, once the jury had been picked, he would be dismissed. Juror 538 was dismissed at the conclusion of jury selection.

         As voir dire progressed, the judge asked additional questions of the full venire, including whether any of the prospective jurors would be more or less inclined to believe a person was guilty because of his race; whether any of them had such strong feelings about the charges in the case that they could not fairly weigh the evidence; whether any of them had religious, moral, or other reasons that would prevent them from deciding the guilt or innocence of another human being; whether any of them knew the possible witnesses in the case; and a final catch-all question asking whether there was any other reason they could not serve.

         The judge received affirmative responses to two of these questions: whether venire members had religious, moral, or other reasons they could not judge another person; and whether members knew any of the possible witnesses. The judge had those prospective jurors approach the bench for follow-up questions. Thus, only those prospective jurors who responded affirmatively to Question Six, concerning connections with law enforcement or prosecution agencies, were asked follow-up questions in open court.



         A. The ...

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