ANNAPOLIS -- After 14 years, Joyce Danna may get another chance to prove that her husband's death was an accident, not murder.
Mrs. Danna, 42, was sentenced to life in prison in 1978 after being convicted by a Baltimore County jury in the Dec. 11, 1977, fatal shooting of her husband, Louis J. Danna, a 30-year-old Baltimore police officer.
She testified during her trial that the officer's .38-caliber service revolver discharged while she was handing it to him.
Friday, the Court of Special Appeals overturned her conviction, ruling that the trial judge improperly instructed the jury before it began to deliberate.
A three-judge panel of the state's second-highest court ruled that Baltimore County Circuit Judge John E. Raine Jr. made an "extraordinary" error by suggesting to jurors that all of them did not have to reach a unanimous decision over whether Mrs. Danna was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
"The instructions suggest that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt if some jurors think that a reasonable doubt exists as to a defendant's guilt, but others do not," said the unanimous opinion written by Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr.
Judges Rosalyn B. Bell and Robert F. Fischer joined in the decision.
The court said defendants have a fundamental constitutional right to a unanimous verdict.
It quoted a 1987 Court of Appeals decision that said, "If one juror believes that the state has met its burden of proving the defendant's guilt, but the other 11 jurors are not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, the result is . . . a hung jury."
George E. Burns Jr., a lawyer in the Maryland Public Defender's appellate division, agreed with the court's ruling that the judge's instructions could have affected the outcome of the trial.
"If you read the instructions, or were a juror listening to them, you would have thought that not everyone would have had to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," Mr. Burns said.
Gary E. Bair, chief of the Maryland attorney general's criminal appeals division, said his office would decide whether to appeal to the Court of Appeals or recommend that prosecutors retry the case after it reads the decision.
"We may or may not pursue it further," Mr. Bair said. "It depends on how the court reached its result."
Mrs. Danna was charged in her husband's slaying two days after he was fatally shot in their Dundalk home.
During the trial, she testified that the couple had argued in their living room earlier on Dec. 11, 1977, and that Mr. Danna had threatened her with his loaded service revolver.
She testified that they settled their argument and that he went upstairs, leaving the gun on the floor.
Later, Mrs. Danna testified, he asked her to take the gun upstairs to him so that he could uncock it.
She took it to him, she said, but it accidentally discharged, killing him, as he grabbed for it.
L The story was corroborated by her daughter during the trial.
But Mrs. Danna's credibility was damaged by her statements that she was unfamiliar with guns.
Evidence was presented during the trial that she had been an armed security guard at Fort Holabird, where her firing range scores qualified her as a marksman. She did not explain the inconsistency in her testimony.
Mrs. Danna is serving the term at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, where she has been a model prisoner, according to Rachel Wohl, a lawyer who took up her cause two years ago.
Ms. Wohl said Mrs. Danna was one of the first female inmates in Maryland to earn a bachelor's degree while in prison.
L She said Mrs. Danna works with battered women at the prison.