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Can the State Try Multiple Defendants Together for the Same Crime?

When two or more people are charged with participating in the same criminal act, it is possible to try the defendants together in a single trial. This is often done for the sake of “judicial economy,” i.e., to conserve the resources of the court and the prosecutor’s office. But the trial judge needs to weigh such efficiency concerns with the potential prejudice to any of the individual defendants.

For example, it is possible that the prosecution will seek to introduce evidence that would not be admissible under a defendant who is tried separately but might be admissible against a co-defendant in a joint trial. At the same time, the mere fact that some otherwise-inadmissible evidence might come up at trial does necessarily invalidate a judge’s decision to try multiple defendants together.

Maryland Court of Special Appeals Upholds Murder Conviction in Prison Gang Case

A recent unpublished decision from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Bunner v. State, provides a practical illustration of what we are talking about. This case involved two defendants named Bunner and Lockner who were charged and tried together for murder. The two co-defendants were already in prison when the alleged crimes occurred. Specifically, they were two of three prisoners charged with killing a fellow inmate. The third man pleaded guilty while Bunner and Lockner decided to go to trial.

The prosecution moved to try both men together, because it was the state’s theory that they were part of a prison “gang” that conspired to kill the victim. Bunner objected to the joint trial, arguing that evidence that was admissible against Lockner would not otherwise be admissible against him. Specifically, Bunner pointed to a note that Lockner had sent him that suggested a possible motive for killing the victim. Bunner argued that the note would unfairly prejudice the jury against him, even though he was not the author.

Despite Bunner’s objections, the judge granted the state’s motion for a joint trial. A jury proceeded to convict both defendants of second-degree murder. The trial court sentenced each defendant to 30 years in prison.

On appeal, Bunner renewed his objection to the joint trial. But the Court of Special Appeals held the trial court acted within its discretion in permitting joinder of these cases. Even assuming that Lockner’s note (and another piece of evidence cited by Bunner) would have been inadmissible against Bunner had he been tried separately, this “limited degree of non-mutually inadmissible evidence didn’t prejudice Mr. Bunner unfairly.” Indeed, the appellate court noted that the challenged evidence did not actually undermine Bunner’s defense at trial–that he had been forced into participating in the murder due to his prison gang affiliation. To the contrary, all the challenged evidence established was the existence of the defendants’ mutual gang affiliation, which Bunner conceded.

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This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.