Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County Case No. C-02-17-001278
Graeff, Shaw Geter, Moylan, Charles E., Jr. (Senior Judge,
Specially Assigned), JJ.
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.
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.
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
Firebell In The Night
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.
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.
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.
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.
appellant's single appellate contention is framed as
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.
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?
2. Does any member of this panel have strong feelings about
the offense of theft?
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.
Versus Compound Questions
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 ...