State v. Thomas

Decision Date10 May 2002
Docket NumberNo. 86 Sept. Term, 2001.,86 Sept. Term, 2001.
Citation369 Md. 202,798 A.2d 566
PartiesSTATE of Maryland v. Jerrod Leroy THOMAS.
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Gary E. Bair, Assistant Attorney General (J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, on brief), Baltimore, for petitioner.

Mark Colvin, Assistant Public Defender (Stephen E. Harris, Public Defender, on brief), Baltimore, for respondent.

Argued Before BELL, C.J., and ELDRIDGE, RAKER, WILNER, CATHELL, HARRELL and BATTAGLIA, JJ.

BELL, Chief Judge.

The issue in this case is whether, when the defendant is charged with distribution and possession of a controlled dangerous substance, it is an abuse of discretion for the trial court to refuse to ask the venire panel if any of them harbored "strong feelings regarding violations of the narcotics laws." The Court of Special Appeals held that it was, Thomas v. State, 139 Md.App. 188, 207-08, 775 A.2d 406, 408 (2001), and the State, the petitioner, by filing a Petition for Writ of Certiorari, requested our review of that judgment. We granted the petition, State v. Thomas, 366 Md. 246, 783 A.2d 221 (2001), and now affirm.

I.

On May 20, 1999, the respondent, Jerrod Leroy Thomas, was charged with possession and distribution of cocaine. The respondent was tried, and ultimately convicted, by a jury in the Circuit Court for Howard County. During voir dire, the respondent asked the trial court to propound to the panel, among others, the following voir dire question:

"Does any member of the jury panel have such strong feelings regarding violations of the narcotics laws that it would be difficult for you to fairly and impartially weigh the facts at a trial where narcotics violations have been alleged?"1

The trial court refused to do so,2 explaining that the question was "fairly covered by other questions, or the Court does not find it necessary to ask" it. Thomas, 139 Md.App. at 195,775 A.2d at 410. The trial court previously had inquired, after apprising the venire of the allegations involved in the case, whether any member of the panel knew anything about the case, had formed an opinion regarding it or had other information about the case. It had also asked whether "there [was] any other reason why any member of this panel feels that if they are picked as a juror in this case they would not be [able] to be a fair and impartial juror and decide this case based solely on the evidence in this case and the law as I would instruct you in this case."3

Following his sentencing, the respondent noted an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals. That court, as we have seen, agreeing with the respondent, held that the lower court abused its discretion by refusing to propound the voir dire question proposed by the respondent and, therefore, reversed the judgment of conviction. Thomas, 139 Md.App. at 193, 775 A.2d at 409. The intermediate appellate court concluded that the proposed voir dire question was "a valid question reasonably likely to uncover a bias that is directly related to the crime" on trial and that did "pose an obstacle to impaneling a fair and impartial jury," id. at 206, 775 A.2d at 417, and, furthermore, that "[n]o other question asked of the venire adequately covered the area of undue influence [the respondent] sought to discover with [the question]." Id. at 207-08, 775 A.2d at 418.

II.

The principles pertinent to the conduct and scope of voir dire have been addressed by this Court and the Court of Special Appeals so often as to be well-known and well-settled. We most recently reviewed them in Dingle v. State, 361 Md. 1, 759 A.2d 819 (2000). We stated as follows:

"Voir dire, the process by which prospective jurors are examined to determine whether cause for disqualification exists, see Boyd v. State, 341 Md. 431, 435, 671 A.2d 33, 35 (1996), is the mechanism whereby the right to a fair and impartial jury, guaranteed by Art. 21 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, ... see Grogg v. State, 231 Md. 530, 532, 191 A.2d 435, 436 (1963), is given substance. See Hill v. State, 339 Md. 275, 280, 661 A.2d 1164, 1166 (1995); Bedford v. State, 317 Md. 659, 670, 566 A.2d 111, 116 (1989). The overarching purpose of voir dire in a criminal case is to ensure a fair and impartial jury. See Boyd, 341 Md. 431, 435,671 A.2d 33, 35 (1996); Hill, 339 Md. 275, 279, 661 A.2d 1164, 1166 (1995); Davis v. State, 333 Md. 27, 34, 633 A.2d 867, 871 (1993); Bedford, 317 Md. 659, 670,566 A.2d 111, 117 (1989); Casey v. Roman Catholic Archbishop, 217 Md. 595, 605, 143 A.2d 627, 631 (1958); Adams v. State, 200 Md. 133, 140, 88 A.2d 556, 559 (1952). In Davis [v. State], 333 Md. [27,] 33, 633 A.2d [867,] 871, quoting Langley v. State, 281 Md. 337, 340, 378 A.2d 1338, 1339 (1977) (citing Waters v. State, 51 Md. 430, 436 (1879)), we said, `a fundamental tenet underlying the practice of trial by jury is that each juror, as far as possible, be impartial and unbiased.'

We recognized in Davis that:

`There are two areas of inquiry that may uncover cause for disqualification: (1) an examination to determine whether prospective jurors meet the minimum statutory qualifications for jury service, see Maryland Code (1974, 1989 Repl. Vol., 1992 Cum.Supp.), Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article, § 8-207; or (2) "`an examination of a juror ... conducted strictly within the right to discover the state of mind of the juror in respect to the matter in hand or any collateral matter reasonably liable to unduly influence him.'"

Id. at 35-36, 759 A.2d 819, 633 A.2d at 871-72, quoting Bedford, 317 Md. at 671, 566 A.2d at 117 (quoting Corens v. State, 185 Md. 561, 564, 45 A.2d 340, 343 (1946)). Thus, we said in Hill, 339 Md. at 279, 661 A.2d at 1166 (quoting McGee v. State, 219 Md. 53, 58, 146 A.2d 194, 196 (1959), in turn quoting Adams v. State, 200 Md. 133, 140, 88 A.2d 556, 559 (1952)):

`Undergirding the voir dire procedure and, hence, informing the trial court's exercise of discretion regarding the conduct of the voir dire, is a single, primary, and overriding principle or purpose: "to ascertain `the existence of cause for disqualification.'"
In so doing, the questions should focus on issues particular to the defendant's case so that biases directly related to the crime, the witnesses, or the defendant may be uncovered.... See Alexander v. R.D. Grier & Sons Co. Inc., 181 Md. 415, 419, 30 A.2d 757, 758 (1943), in which the trial court's refusal to ask `whether or not [jurors] or any of their immediate family [were assessables] in the Keystone Indemnity Exchange,' where the issue at trial was the enforcement of an assessment against a subscriber by Keystone and the juror's financial interest `would theoretically incline him in favor of recovery of a verdict for the liquidator,' was held to be an abuse of discretion, the question being directed at determining whether any juror was biased or prejudiced. See also Morford v. United States, 339 U.S. 258, 70 S.Ct. 586, 94 L.Ed. 815 (1950) (finding that where panel from which the jury was selected consisted of almost entirely government employees, refusal to allow questions pertaining to possible influence of the federal loyalty oath was error). Indeed, as we held in Bedford, "any circumstances which may reasonably be regarded as rendering a person unfit for jury service may be made the subject of questions and a challenge for cause." 317 Md. at 671, 566 A.2d at 117, quoting Corens v. State, 185 Md. at 564, 45 A.2d at 343. In addition, we have also held that,
`If there is any likelihood that some prejudices in the jurors' mind which will even subconsciously affect his decision of the case, the party who may be adversely affected should be permitted questions designed to uncover that prejudice. This is particularly true with reference to the defendant in a criminal case. Otherwise, the right of trial by an impartial jury guaranteed to him ... might well be impaired....'
Bedford, 317 Md. at 671, 566 A.2d at 117; quoting Brown v. State, 220 Md. 29, 35, 150 A.2d 895, 897-98 (1959), quoting State v. Higgs, 143 Conn. 138, 142, 120 A.2d 152, 154 (1956)."

361 Md. at 9-11, 759 A.2d at 823-24 (footnotes omitted).

It is the application of those principles to particular fact patterns that presents the difficulty. This case is illustrative.

The State does not disagree with these guiding principles; in fact, it cites virtually the same principles, but as penned by Judge Chasanow in Davis v. State, 333 Md. 27, 34-35, 633 A.2d 867, 871 (1993).4 Relying on those principles as applied in that case, the State argues, diametrically opposite to the result reached by the Court of Special Appeals, that although it would not have committed error had it chosen to ask the voir dire question proposed by the respondent, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it refused to ask the question.

At issue in Davis was the court's refusal, premised on its conclusion that the inquiry "[did] not relate to cause for disqualification," id. at 36, 633 A.2d at 872, to ask the venire the question, whether any member of the venire or a close friend or relative, was, or had been, a member of the law enforcement community. The Court reasoned that an affirmative answer to the question would not have established such cause, id. at 36-37, 633 A.2d at 872, and that

"First, the fact that a prospective juror is or was a member of a law enforcement body does not automatically disqualify that venire person. See Harris v. State, 82 Md.App. 450, 470, 572 A.2d 573, 583 (trial judge did not err when he failed to strike former state trooper for cause where trooper indicated that he was able to render fair and impartial judgment despite earlier employment), cert. denied, 320 Md. 800, 580 A.2d 218 (1990). Likewise, the mere fact that a prospective juror is related to or associated with members of the law enforcement community does not constitute cause for disqualification. Goldstein v. State, 220 Md. 39, 45, 150 A.2d 900, 904 (1959); Shifflett v. State, 80 Md.App. 151, 156, 560 A.2d 587,
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