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The Importance of a “Lesser” Offense in a Maryland Criminal Trial

In many criminal cases, there may be a “lesser” offense that the jury could elect to convict the defendant of instead of the higher offense charged by the prosecution. To give a simple example, say a defendant is charged with burglary. This requires the prosecution to prove–beyond a reasonable doubt–that someone entered the property of another forcibly and without permission. The evidence could also support a conviction for trespassing, which does not require proof of forcible entry. If presented with an option, the jury could elect to convict the defendant on the lesser charge.

Court of Special Appeals Throws Out Voluntary Manslaughter Conviction

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals recently addressed a more serious case where the jury was not given that option. In Hannah v. State, prosecutors charged the defendant with murder. The case arose from a December 2017 incident outside a bar. According to surveillance video from the bar’s cameras, the victim was sitting in a car stopped outside of the establishment. A man–whom the prosecutors alleged was the defendant–was then seen standing at the driver’s side door of the vehicle. The man started hitting the victim. As the car started to pull away, the man fired several shots from a weapon, killing the victim.

The indictment charged the defendant with first-degree murder. It also included the lesser offenses of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. The defense also requested an instruction on involuntary manslaughter, which the trial judge denied. The jury proceeded to convict the defendant of voluntary manslaughter, as well as several other charges.

The Court of Special Appeals held the trial judge erred in not giving the jury the option of considering involuntary manslaughter. The prosecution had argued that the jury “could not rationally convict [the defendant] of involuntary manslaughter” based on the evidence submitted at trial. The appellate court disagreed. The legal standard for involuntary manslaughter in Maryland is whether someone acted with “gross negligence.” In this context, that means a person was aware of the risk created by their actions, yet so acted in a way that “showed a reckless disregard” for human life.

There was “some” evidence supporting gross negligence here, the Court of Special Appeals concluded. The defense’s theory was that the shooter had only intended to “frighten” the victim by shooting at his car as it drove away, rather than kill him. Doing so would be “grossly negligent” and thus support a finding of involuntary manslaughter.

As the appellate court noted, the jury did acquit the defendant on both murder charges, indicating it found the defendant lacked the intent to kill the victim. The jury’s conviction on involuntary manslaughter indicated the defendant had “acted under duress.” But the evidence–or more precisely, the lack of evidence regarding what caused the initial altercation between the defendant and the victim–could have equally supported a finding of involuntary manslaughter. As such, a new trial was necessary.

Contact Calvert County, Maryland, Criminal Defense Lawyer Robert Castro Today

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.