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When is an Old Conviction Admissible in a Maryland Criminal Trial?

If you are on trial for an alleged crime, you do not have to testify in your own defense. Of course, you may elect to testify. But in doing so, you potentially open the door for prosecutors to introduce certain types of evidence against you that might not otherwise be admissible.

For example, the state usually cannot introduce evidence regarding prior convictions or “bad acts” that are unrelated to the case on trial. But such evidence is admissible to challenge or “impeach” your credibility as a witness. Alternatively, if you offer testimony as to your character, the prosecution may seek to admit evidence of prior criminal convictions to rebut that testimony.

Court of Special Appeals Upholds Conviction, Life Sentence in Attempted Murder Case

A recent unreported decision from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Sterling v. State, provides a useful illustration of how these rules are applied in practice. Prosecutors charged the defendant in this case with the attempted murder of his employer. One evening, the defendant and the employer were drinking at a bar. The employer accused the defendant of stealing $9,000 from him. This led to a fistfight between the two men.

Several weeks later, there was another altercation. The employer claimed that the defendant said, “I’m gonna rob and kill you,” before striking the employer with a machete. The employer said the defendant proceeded to rob him before fleeing the scene. The defendant, who decided to testify at trial, offered a different account. He said the machete belonged to the employer, who brought the knife to work to cut down some tree branches. The employer then repeated his earlier accusation about the defendant stealing money from him. The defendant said this led to another fight, in the course of which the employer dropped the machete before picking up another weapon to attack the defendant. The defendant said after the fight ended, he demanded the employer pay him his wages for the day, and the employer gave him $66.

In recounting his story, the defendant said, “I wasn’t trying to take nothing that weren’t mine. I didn’t want nothing, never did, take anything that weren’t mine.” The prosecution saw an opening here and decided to bring up the fact that 40 years earlier, the defendant was convicted of armed robbery. The judge allowed this evidence in over the defense’s objection. The jury subsequently convicted the defendant and he received a sentence of life in prison.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction. It noted that when the defendant said he “never” took anything that did not belong to him, that “cracked the door open” for the prosecution to bring up the older armed robbery. And while evidence of a prior conviction more than 15 years old is generally not admissible even with the door open, it was still allowable as rebuttal of the defendant’s proffered statements regarding his own character, where that time limit does not apply.

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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.