Court overturns sex abuse conviction

June 12, 1994|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Sun Staff Writer

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has overturned the conviction of a 59-year-old man accused of sexually abusing his stepdaughter between 1974 and 1977, saying the trial judge erred in dismissing a juror who had written a note commenting on the defendant's sexual prowess.

In an opinion received in Harford Circuit Court on Friday, the appellate court said that, except for good cause, a criminal defendant is entitled to have his case heard by the 12 jurors his lawyers helped to pick.

The opinion, written by Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. for the three-judge panel that included Judges Theodore G. Bloom and Robert F. Fischer, said the juror's note appeared to suggest a bias in favor of the stepfather.

But the panel concluded that the juror's explanation in the July 1993 trial did not sufficiently indicate that the juror had disregarded his duty to keep an open mind.

The stepfather, whose name and address are being withheld to protect his stepdaughter's identity, was sentenced in September to 15 years in prison with 10 years suspended.

According to court records, the alleged sexual abuse began when the girl was about 9.

Harford prosecutor Diana A. Brooks said Friday that the juror's note said the defendant "had to be a good man" if he was having frequent sexual relations with his stepdaughter and his wife.

"It was a goofy note and showed he had already made up his mind," Ms. Brooks said. "I wanted him dismissed, and Judge [William O.] Carr agreed.

"I don't understand [the appellate panel's] reasoning," she said. "The juror was replaced with the first alternate, who was also picked by the defense."

The Court of Special Appeals ruled that when the juror was asked to explain his note, he said he meant that he wanted to hear more testimony from the wife. He said his remark about being "a good man" meant that a man who is having sex with his stepdaughter "has got to be in good shape to provide his wife with what she needs, too."

Judge Carr declined to comment on the reversal.

At the time the juror was dismissed, the panel's opinion noted, Judge Carr said he seriously questioned whether the juror had DTC followed instructions, specifically to "keep an open mind throughout the entire case."

The panel also said the trial judge failed to ask, before dismissing the juror, whether the juror still had the ability to render a fair and impartial verdict based on the evidence, and thus should not have presumed that he could not.

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