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Court of Special Appeals Tosses Assault Conviction Based on Officer’s Hearsay

In a criminal trial, witnesses are not allowed to offer hearsay as testimony. Hearsay basically means the witness cannot recount a third party’s account of what happened. For example, if you witnessed a person commit a robbery, you could testify against that person in court. But if someone merely told you that the person committed a robbery, but you did not see it yourself, then that would be inadmissible hearsay.

No Admissible Evidence Corroborated Accuser’s Story Regarding Gun

The improper use of hearsay can be grounds for overturning a criminal conviction. Take this recent unreported decision from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Scott v. State. In this case, prosecutors charged the defendant with assault and use of a firearm. The accuser was described by the Court as the defendant’s “on-and-off” girlfriend.

In early 2019, a local sheriff’s deputy responded to a call at the residence where the accuser lived with the defendant. The deputy described this as a “keep the peace call to help someone move their belongings out of [the] residence.” The deputy said the accuser appeared to be “visibly upset” and crying. The accuser told the deputy that the defendant had pointed a gun at her head during a fight. The defendant said he “never laid a hand on her or hurt her.”

Prosecutors nevertheless charged the defendant with assault based on the accuser’s statements that he had previously pointed a gun at her. At trial, the defendant did not testify or call any witnesses. But defense counsel argued at closing that the accuser fabricated the allegation about the gun, as it was inconsistent with her earlier “keep the peace” call to the police.

The jury convicted the defendant on all counts. On appeal, the defendant challenged the admission of part of the sheriff’s deputy at trial, which he argued was inadmissible hearsay that unfairly bolstered the accuser’s credibility. Specifically, the deputy testified that the accuser told him that the defendant had pointed a gun at her–an event the deputy did not witness.

The appellate court agreed with the defendant that this was inadmissible hearsay. Noting the prosecutor referenced the deputy’s statements during closing arguments, the Court said this was a clear case of improperly using hearsay to bolster a witness’ credibility with the jury. Indeed, the prosecution had no other evidence to corroborate the accuser’s story.

Given all this, the Court of Special Appeals could not say “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the trial judge’s incorrect decision to allow the deputy’s testimony did not influence the jury’s ultimate verdict. The error was sufficient to throw out the defendant’s conviction and order a new trial, assuming the prosecution elects to retry the case.

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