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How “Duplicitous Charges” Can Undermine a Criminal Defendant’s Right to a Unanimous Verdict

A person charged with any crime has the right to a jury trial. The Maryland Constitution further makes it explicit that a jury’s guilty verdict must be unanimous. Indeed, unanimity is “indispensable to the sufficiency of the verdict,” according to a long line of decisions from the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Unanimity means the jury must agree that the defendant committed the specific offense alleged. This can be frustrated when prosecutors attempt to charge two or more separate alleged offenses in a single count. For this reason, Maryland court rules generally forbid prosecutors from bringing “duplicitous charges” that may confuse a jury’s verdict.

Court of Appeals Reverses Single Assault Conviction Involving Two Separate Incidents

The Court of Appeals recently clarified that this prohibition against duplicitous charges requires a trial court to instruct the jury that it “must unanimously agree as to which incident underlies any conviction.” Alternatively, the court can require the prosecutor to decide which of multiple incidents to pursue when bringing just one charge.

The case before the Court of Appeals, Johnson v. State, involved a man charged with one count each of assault and the use of a firearm in the commission of a crime. The prosecution argued the charges stemmed from a single, continuous criminal incident, thus only a single charge was necessary. The defense argued the prosecution had actually alleged criminal offenses arising from two separate incidents that occurred within minutes of each other.

Here is what happened. Prosecutors alleged that the defendant entered a private residence that was unoccupied at the time. When the homeowner returned, however, she found the defendant in her attic holding her antique rifle, which he threatened to fire. The defendant and the homeowner then fought for control of the rifle.

The homeowner left the attic and went downstairs to call the police. She then retrieved a handgun, loaded it, and confronted the defendant a second time at the bottom of the attic stairs. During this struggle, the handgun went off and shot the homeowner through her hand. The defendant then took the gun and fled, only to be captured by the police.

So returning to the legal question: Did the defendant allegedly commit one assault or two? The prosecution and the trial judge thought it was one criminal act, and the jury convicted the defendant on that basis. But the Court of Appeals held that the jury “could have reasonably perceived two distinct assaults and two distinct uses of a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence” based on the evidence presented and the prosecutor’s arguments. Therefore, even if the two incidents “were separated by only a matter of minutes,” the time between them was sufficient to create two distinct incidents. Since the state only charged the defendant with one set of violations, however, the jury had to be unanimous on which of the two incidents occurred. The Court of Appeals therefore vacated the defendant’s convictions and ordered a new trial.

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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.