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Maryland Court of Appeals Rules That Courts Must Ask Non Compound ‘Strong Feelings’ Question Upon Request During Voir Dire

by Douglas Ankney

The Court of Appeals of Maryland reaffirmed that, upon request, trial courts must ask non-compound “strong feelings question” of potential jurors during voir dire in the following form: “Do any of you have strong feelings about [crime with which defendant is charged]?” 

During voir dire in Gordon Collins’ trial on charges of burglary and theft, the trial court asked, “Does anyone on this panel have any strong feelings about the offense of burglary to the point where you could not render a fair and impartial verdict?” (“compound strong feelings question”).None of the jurors responded. The court asked an identical question concerning the offense of theft, and again, no juror responded. 

Defense counsel objected on the grounds that the questions should be asked in the form, “Does anyone on this panel have any strong feelings about the offense of burglary?” and “Does anyone on this panel have any strong feelings about the offense of theft?” (“strong feelings questions”). The court overruled the objection.

The court also asked if any of the prospective jurors or jurors’ family members had been victims of a crime (“victim question”); whether any member of the panel would allow sympathy, pity, anger, or any other emotion to influence their verdict (“pity question”), and whether there was anything at all that would prevent them from returning a fair and impartial verdict (“general question”). 

A jury was selected and opening statements were given before recess was called. After returning from recess, the prosecutor informed the court that failure to ask the strong feelings questions was reversible error. Over defense’s objections, the court then asked the strong feelings questions. Collins was convicted of both charges, and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed. Certiorari to the Court of Appeals was granted.

The Court began its analysis with Dingle v. State, 759 A.2d 819 (2000), which held that a trial court abused its discretion when during voir dire it asked the compound question: “[H]ave you or any family member or a friend been a victim of a crime, and if the answer to that part of the question is yes, would that fact interfere with your ability to be fair and impartial in this case?”

The Court observed that such a question required potential jurors to determine for themselves if they qualified to sit as jurors, but it is the function of the trial court to make that determination. Additionally, the question deprived the defense of knowing which, if any, jurors had been victims of a crime and then asking follow-up questions to determine if a challenge for cause was appropriate.

In Pearson v. State, 86 A.3d 1232 (2014), the Court applied this reasoning to compound strong feelings questions. The Court observed that such questions shift the jurors’ focus to determining if they can be fair and impartial instead of simply whether they have strong feelings about the particular offense(s) for which the defendant is being tried. A juror would make a response only if he or she determined that he or she could not be fair and impartial. If a juror had strong feelings about the offense but believed the feelings had no effect on impartiality, then no response would be given. This would prevent counsel from having knowledge to ask follow-up questions to explore the reasons for the strong feelings and prevent the court from then determining if the juror were fit to try the case. Pearson held that a trial court must ask strong feelings questions and not compound strong feelings questions during voir dire when defense requests it.

The Court determined that in this case the “victim question” asked by the trial court was not an adequate substitute strong feelings question because a juror could have strong feelings without ever experiencing being a victim. The same was true of the “pity question” and the “general question.” Furthermore, asking the proper strong feelings questions after the jury was seated did not cure the trial court’s error of failing to ask the properly worded questions during voir dire. For one thing, by the time the trial court asked the questions, the jurors already knew they were selected as a juror, and they may have already been invested in the case by hearing the specific facts of the charged offenses. And since they had already been asked the questions in compound form, they may have been too embarrassed to answer truthfully because it would appear they had changed their minds for no apparent reason. Also, the jurors then knew the purpose of the question was to determine if the strong feelings would affect their impartiality, and they had already made that determination for themselves.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals and remanded to that court with instructions to reverse the circuit court’s judgment and remand to that court for a new trial. See: Collins v. State, 205 A.3d 1012 (Md. 2019). 

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