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Collins v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

April 2, 2019

GORDON COLLINS
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Argued: February 1, 2019

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

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, Harrell, Jr., Glenn T. (Senior, Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION

          WATTS, J.

         "Voir dire" is Law French[1] for "to speak the truth[, ]" and refers to "[a] preliminary examination of a prospective juror by a [trial court] to decide whether [he or she] is qualified and suitable to serve on a jury." Voir Dire, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014). Voir dire is critical to implementing a defendant's right to a fair and impartial jury. See Pearson v. State, 437 Md. 350, 356, 86 A.3d 1232, 1235 (2014).

         "[I]n Maryland, the sole purpose of voir dire is to ensure a fair and impartial jury by determining the existence of specific cause for disqualification." Id. at 356, 86 A.3d at 1235 (cleaned up). To that end, "[o]n request, a trial court must ask a voir dire question if and only if the voir dire question is reasonably likely to reveal specific cause for disqualification." Id. at 357, 86 A.3d at 1236 (cleaned up). "There are two categories of specific cause for disqualification: (1) a statute disqualifies a prospective juror; or (2) a collateral matter is reasonably liable to have undue influence over a prospective juror." Id. at 357, 86 A.3d at 1236 (cleaned up). "The latter category is comprised of biases [that are] directly related to the crime, the witnesses, or the defendant." Id. at 357, 86 A.3d at 1236 (cleaned up).

         One example of a question that is reasonably likely to reveal bias that is directly related to the crime is what is commonly called the "strong feelings" question-i.e., "'Do any of you have strong feelings about [the crime with which the defendant is charged]?'" Id. at 354, 86 A.3d at 1234 (brackets in original). In Pearson, id. at 363, 86 A.3d at 1239, this Court held that, during voir dire, on request, a trial court must ask the "strong feelings" question in the form set forth above, and that it is improper for a trial court to ask the "strong feelings" question in compound form, such as: "'Does any member of the jury panel have such strong feelings about [the charges in this case] that it would be difficult for you to fairly and impartially weigh the facts[?]'" (Cleaned up) (first set of brackets in original). We refer to such a question as "a compound 'strong feelings' question" because it essentially combines two questions: one regarding whether the prospective juror has strong feelings about the charges; and, if so, one regarding whether those strong feelings would make it difficult for the prospective juror to be fair and impartial. See id. at 362, 86 A.3d at 1238-39.

         This case requires us to decide whether a trial court abused its discretion where, during voir dire, the trial court violated this Court's holding in Pearson by asking compound "strong feelings" questions and refusing to ask properly-phrased-i.e., non-compound-"strong feelings" questions. We must also determine whether other questions that the trial court asked during voir dire, such as whether any prospective jurors or any of their immediate relatives had been a victim of a crime or a member of a law enforcement agency, could substitute for properly-phrased "strong feelings" questions; and whether, after the jury was seated and heard opening statements, the trial court cured any abuse of discretion by asking properly-phrased "strong feelings" questions.

         In the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, the State, Respondent, charged Gordon Collins, Petitioner, with first-degree burglary and theft of property with a value of less than $1, 000. During voir dire, the circuit court asked the "victim" question and the "law enforcement agency" question, to each of which multiple prospective jurors responded. The circuit court asked the following compound "strong feelings" questions: "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?"; and "Does any member of this panel have strong feelings about the offense of theft to the extent that it would make you unable to be fair and impartial and base your decision only on the evidence in this case[?]" None of the prospective jurors responded to either of the compound "strong feelings" questions. Collins's counsel requested that the circuit court ask properly-phrased "strong feelings" questions, and the circuit court refused.

         The jury was seated and sworn, and heard preliminary jury instructions and opening statements. After a recess, the prosecutor advised the circuit court that the compound "strong feelings" questions were improper, and proposed that the circuit court ask the jury properly-phrased "strong feelings" questions. Over Collins's counsel's objection, the circuit court did so. None of the jurors responded.

         Before us, Collins contends that the circuit court abused its discretion by asking compound "strong feelings" questions and refusing to ask properly-phrased ones during voir dire. Collins argues that other questions that the circuit court asked could not substitute for properly-phrased "strong feelings" questions. Collins asserts that the circuit court did not cure its abuse of discretion by later asking the jury properly-phrased "strong feelings" questions. The State responds that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion because other questions that the circuit court asked during voir dire were designed to elicit any potential bias based on the nature of the charges of burglary and/or theft. The State contends that the circuit court cured any error by later asking the jury properly-phrased "strong feelings" questions.

         We reaffirm our holding in Pearson, 437 Md. at 354, 86 A.3d at 1234, that, on request, a trial court is required to ask a properly-phrased-i.e., non-compound-"strong feelings" question. In other words, under Pearson, during voir dire, on request, a trial court must ask: "Do any of you have strong feelings about [the crime with which the defendant is charged]?" We reiterate that, during voir dire, on request, a trial court must ask the "strong feelings" question in the form set forth above, and it is improper for a trial court to ask the "strong feelings" question in compound form, such as: "Does any member of the jury panel have such strong feelings about [the charges in this case] that it would be difficult for you to fairly and impartially weigh the facts?"

         We hold that, in this case, the circuit court abused its discretion by asking compound "strong feelings" questions and refusing to ask properly-phrased "strong feelings" questions during voir dire. We decline the State's invitation to determine that other questions that the circuit court asked during voir dire could substitute for properly-phrased "strong feelings" questions, and we conclude that the circuit court did not cure its abuse of discretion by later asking the selected jury ...


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