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Collins v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

August 30, 2018

GORDON ALEXANDER COLLINS
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County Case No. C-02-17-001278

          Graeff, Shaw Geter, Moylan, Charles E., Jr. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION

          Moylan, J.

         In the voir-dire examination of prospective jurors, can a relatively modest glitch in the framing of a single question totally derail an otherwise flawless criminal trial? In addressing that question, the magisterial opinion of Judge Watts in Pearson v. State, 437 Md. 350, 86 A.3d 1232 (2014), will be our Alpha and Omega. The appellant, Gordon Collins, was convicted in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County by a jury, presided over by Judge Paul F. Harris, Jr., of both first-degree burglary and the theft of goods with a value under $1, 000.

         A Flawless Trial

         The trial was as uncontroversial as it was brief. The opening statement for the prosecution ran for three and one-half pages. That of the appellant was a page and one-half long. Two witnesses testified for the State. The testimony of Juliette Tower covered slightly fewer than ten pages in the trial transcript. The testimony of Sergeant Kenneth Brown ran for 22 pages. No one testified for the defense and it offered no evidence. The motion at the end of the State's case, which turned out to be the motion at the end of the entire case, could not have been more innocuous:

[THE STATE]: The State would rest, thank you.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: I would make my motion.
THE COURT: Okay, you want to be heard?
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: No.
THE COURT: I will deny it. Does your client or any other evidence you are going to -
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: No.
THE COURT: No evidence?
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Correct.

         The brief jury instructions were completely boiler-plate, with no objections being lodged by either party either in the course of the jury instructions or at their conclusion. The State's closing argument ran for two and one-half pages in the transcript and its rebuttal for a single page. Defense argument ran for eight pages. The jury returned verdicts of guilty on both charges after deliberating for 40 minutes. This case was a slam-dunk for the prosecution. The only issue before us is that of whether it was fatally flawed before it began.

         A Firebell In The Night

         Juliette Tower testified that as of March 17, 2017, she and her husband were living at 801 Severn Avenue in Annapolis. At 11:20 p.m. both Mr. and Mrs. Tower were in bed. He was sleeping and she was trying to fall asleep. She heard a noise downstairs but initially thought that their cat had knocked something over. When the noise persisted "again and again," however, she nudged her husband awake and said, "I think there's somebody downstairs." He got up and ran downstairs. Mrs. Tower followed several minutes behind her husband. She had already called 911, however, before coming downstairs.

         The contents of their television room were in disarray, "things scattered all over." All of the cabinets in the kitchen had been opened. Mr. Tower noticed and pointed out to his wife that a window next to the back door had been opened. When Mr. and Mrs. Tower surveyed what, if anything, was missing, the missing items included their son's Xbox, a leather jacket belonging to Mrs. Tower, several games belonging to their son, and their son's headphones. Mrs. Tower later identified these items when they were shown to her by the police.

         An Immediate Response

         The only other witness in the case was Sergeant Kenneth Brown. He received a call about a burglary at 11:21 p.m. He responded immediately and, within four minutes, was at the intersection of Wells Avenue and Adams Avenue on his way to 801 Severn Avenue. He saw the appellant, walking toward him and away from Severn Avenue. Sergeant Brown estimated that the spot where he first saw the appellant was less than a five-minute walk from 801 Severn Avenue. The appellant was the only person about. The streets were otherwise empty. The appellant was wearing dark clothing and was carrying a plastic garbage bag, slung over his shoulder.

         Sergeant Brown, traveling in an opposite direction, continued past the appellant for approximately one block, executed a three-point U-turn, and drove back toward the appellant. The sergeant was out of direct visual contact with the appellant for about 20 seconds. After the sergeant made his U-turn, he again spotted the appellant in his dark clothing. The plastic garbage bag, however, was gone. The appellant was actually returning to the sidewalk from an area between a parked car and a fence. The appellant was detained for further investigation. Another officer shortly arrived on the scene. Sergeant Brown recovered the plastic garbage bag just over the fence. It contained the Xbox, Mrs. Tower's leather jacket, several games belonging to the Towers' son and the son's headphones. All of these items were identified by Mr. and Mrs. Tower as their property. The appellant offered neither denial nor explanation. The State's case was, indeed, an open and shut one.

         The Contention

         The appellant's single appellate contention is framed as follows:

The trial court abused its discretion when it asked the venire two improperly phrased "strong feelings" voir dire questions, and it did not cure the prejudice from that error by subsequently asking the seated, sworn jury properly phrased "strong feelings" questions.

         What the appellant wanted were two "strong feelings" questions with respect to the crimes of burglary and theft. The simple and direct "strong feelings" questions he requested were:

1. Does any member of this panel have strong feelings about the offense of burglary?[1]
2. Does any member of this panel have strong feelings about the offense of theft?

         Instead of getting the questions in that simple form, however, the appellant, to his chagrin, got them in compound form:

1. Does anyone on this panel have any strong feelings about the offense of burglary to the point where you could not render a fair and impartial verdict based on the evidence?
2. Does anyone on this panel have any strong feelings about the offense of theft to the point where you could not render a fair and impartial verdict based on the evidence?
Therein lurks the controversy.

         Simple Versus Compound Questions

         The semantic sin of the compound question lies in the possible ambiguity of its answer. A "Yes or No" answer to the simple question tells us whether there are or are not "strong feelings." A "No" answer to the compound question, by contrast, does not. It may mean that there are no strong feelings. It may, on the other hand, mean that the prospective juror, indeed, harbors such feelings but feels that he or she can render a fair and impartial verdict despite those feelings. We cannot ...


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