Harmless Error in Court of Special Appeals Opinions, 2017 to 2020

By Erica Becker
Guest Contributor[*]

Maryland precedent indicates that in criminal cases, a significant majority of errors will not be deemed harmless on appeal. The burden is on the State to show errors are harmless, and that burden is quite high:

“Harmless error review is the standard of review most favorable to the defendant short of an automatic reversal.” Bellamy v. State, 403 Md. 308, 333, 941 A.2d 1107 (2008). When we have determined that the trial court erred in a criminal case, “reversal is required unless the error did not influence the verdict.” Id. at 332, 941 A.2d 1107 (citation omitted). “To say that an error did not contribute to the verdict is … to find that error unimportant in relation to everything else the jury considered on the issue in question, as revealed by the record.” Id. (citation omitted). In other words, reversal is required unless we find that the error was harmless. We have explained that an “error is harmless only if it did not play any role in the jury’s verdict.” Id. (emphasis added) (citation omitted). The State carries the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the error meets this high standard. Dionas v. State, 436 Md. 97, 108, 80 A.3d 1058 (2013) (citation omitted).

Porter v. State, 455 Md. 220, 234, 166 A.3d 1044, 1052 (2017).

However, a review Court of Special Appeals opinions from recent years indicates that in practice, errors are deemed harmless approximately half the time.

I reviewed reported and unreported criminal Court of Special Appeals opinions from 2017 through 2020 and divided them into three categories: 1) cases where the Court found error but deemed it harmless; 2) cases where the Court found error and deemed it not to be harmless (and, therefore, reversed); and 3) cases where the Court found error that could not be harmless as a matter of law (i.e., Rule 4-215 violations, failure to ask a mandatory voir dire question, etc.). Where an error could potentially be harmless (so, excluding 4-215(e) errors, etc.), the Court concluded that it was half the time (or, to be precise, 49% of the time). My findings are summarized in the below chart.

In conclusion, there are appears to be a tension between Maryland’s case law, which holds that errors will rarely be deemed harmless, and the manner in which harmless error is actually applied by the Court of Special Appeals; in practice, the Court deems almost half of errors to be harmless. It would appear that the case law needs to be reinvigorated.

Harmless Error Not Harmless ErrorCannot be Harmless Error
Rainey v. State, 246 Md.App. 160 (2020) Miller v. State, 2020 WL 737638 (Feb. 12, 2020)Laser Womack v. State, 244 Md.App. 443 (2020): 4-215(a) error
Bailey v. State, 2019 WL 290066 (Jan. 2, 2019)Wallace-Bey v. State, 234 Md.App. 501 (2017) Thurston v. State, 2020 WL 85448 (Jan. 7, 2020): 4-215 error 
Duke v. State, 2019 WL 4391273 (Sept. 13, 2019)Harris v. State, 2019 WL 1504360 (April 5, 2019)Burley v. State, 2018 WL 6040862 (Nov. 19, 2018): 4-215 error
Whitehead v. State, 2020 WL 1316909 (March 19, 2020)Whitfield v. State, 2018 WL 6012530 (Nov. 15, 2018)Collington v. State, 2020 WL 1034597 (March 3, 2020): Error in failing to ask mandatory requested voir dire question 
Burnside v. State, 2017 WL 3668172 (August 25, 2017) Robertson v. State, 2018 WL 2727911 (June 6, 2018)Knight v. State, 2019 WL 5172368 (Oct. 15, 2019): 4-215 error
Rucker v. State, 2020 WL 1972581 (April 24, 2020)Allen v. State, 2019 WL 4598012 (Sept. 23, 2019)Banks v. State, 2019 WL 3021133 (July 10, 2019): Asking compound voir dire question
Carter v. State, 2017 WL 3614227 (August 23, 2017)Little v. State, 2019 WL 5305524 (Oct. 21, 2019)Henriquez-Lopez v. State, 2020 WL 4383217 (July 30, 2020): Rule 4-215(e) violation
Nicholson v. State, 239 Md.App.228 (2018)Seal v. State, 2017 WL 6209665 (Dec. 8, 2017)Brown v. State, 2018 WL 6601179 (December 14, 2018): Rule 4-215(a)(1) and (a)(3) violations
Velez v. State, 2017 WL 3634228 (Aug. 24, 2017)Lyles v. State, 2017 WL 2981851 (July 13, 2017)March v. State, 2019 WL 6125237 (October 15, 2019): Rule 4-215(e) error
Doucett v. State, 2018 WL 1895787 (April 20, 2018)Vargas-Salguero v. State, 237 Md.App. 317 (2018)Butler v. State, 2019 WL 5856643 (November 8, 2019): Rule 4-215(e) error;  evidence insufficient to sustain conviction 
Umrani v. State, 2018 WL 2193998 (May 14, 2018)Clark v. State, 2019 WL 6358931 (Nov. 27, 2019)Williams v. State, 2018 WL 4567120 (September 21, 2018): 4-215(e) error
Clark v. State, 2018 WL 5879570 (Nov. 7, 2018)Strickland v. State, 2018 WL 1319046 (March 14, 2018)Ringgold v. State, 2017 WL 3633515 (August 24, 2017): 4-215(e) error
Chambers v. State, 2018 WL 1920408 (April 24, 2018) Traynham v. State, 243 Md.App. 717 (2019)Brown v. State, 2018 WL 6266780 (November 30, 2018): 4-215(a)(3) and (b) error
Poindexter v. State, 2018 WL 2113044 (May 8, 2018)Caldwell v. State, 2019 WL 385090 (Jan. 30, 2019)Keys v. State, 2019 WL 5858138 (November 8, 2019): 4-215(e) error
Pietruszewski v. State, 245 Md.App. 292 (2020):Santos v. State, 2018 WL 4002034 (August 21, 2018)Lambert v. State, 2020 WL 473413 (January 29, 2020): 4-215(e) error
Jeter v. State, 2018 WL 2447002 (May 31, 2018) Little v. State, 2019 WL 931723 (Feb. 25, 2019)Drumgoole v. State, 2017 WL 5608076 (November 21, 2017): 4-215 error
Clinkscales v. State, 2020 WL 3577836 (July 1, 2020)Paysinger v. State, 2017 WL 6032589 (Dec. 6, 2017)Artis v. State, 2020 WL 1244774 (March 16, 2020): Failure to instruct the jury on the necessity of proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt
Manzanero v. State, 2019 WL 6769613 (Dec. 12, 2019)Nealy v. State, 2018 WL 1531465 (March 28, 2018)Harmon v. State, 2019 WL 3938719 (Aug. 20, 2019): Brady violation
Lugo-Defuentes v. State, 2020 WL 1230504 (March 13, 2020)Heath v. State, 2018 WL 3085156 (June 21, 2018)Weddington v. State, 2017 WL 3015954 (July 17, 2017): 4-215(e) error
Nelson v. State, 2019 WL 4391311 (Sept. 13, 2019)Hawkins v. State, 2019 WL 1989606 (May 6, 2019)Sterling v. State, 2019 WL 2513351 (June 11, 2019): 4-215 error
Taylor v. State, 236 Md.App. 397 (2018)McDonald v. State, 2018 WL 871524 (Feb. 12, 2018)Cooper v. State, 2019 WL 1771756 (April 22, 2019): Erroneous order to register appellant as a sex-offender
Grier v. State, 2020 WL 584588 (February 6, 2020)Thomas v. State, 2019 WL 453684 (Feb. 5, 2019)Milbourne v. State, 2020 WL 2091642 (April 30, 2020): 4-215(e) error
Jefferson v. State, 2018 WL 3153761 (June 26, 2018)Foot v. State, 2017 WL 6016587 (Dec. 5, 2017)White v. State, 2020 WL 1492801 (March 27 2020): 4-215(e) error
Neal v. State, 2020 WL 1491416 (March 27, 2020)Walter v. State, 239 Md.App. 168 (2019)Thomas v. State, 2018 WL 1040028 (Feb. 21, 2018)  Error in failing to ask mandatory requested voir dire question 
Santana v. State, 2020 WL 836789 (Feb. 19, 2020)Thomas v. State, 2019 WL 4860774 (Oct. 1, 2019)
Derius Duncan v. State, 2020 WL 2499875  (May 14, 2020)Jones v. State, 2020 WL 917533 (Feb. 26, 2020)
Nalls v. State, 2020 WL 752159 (Feb. 14, 2020)Williams v. State, 2020 WL 3125350 (June 12, 2020)
Williams v. State, 2019 WL 4391272 (Sept. 13, 2019)Sample v. State, 2019 WL 3451812 (July 31, 2019)
Wilson v. State, 2017 WL 4269026 (Sept. 26 2017) Paydar v. State, 243 Md.App. 441 (2019)
Bermudez-Chavez v. State, 2018 Wl 2113291 (May 8, 2018)McLendon v. State, 2019 WL 7212330 (Dec. 27, 2019)
Young v. State, 2019 WL 6737097 (Dec. 11, 2019)Sewell v. State, 239 Md.App. 571 (2018)
Willis v. State, 2019 WL 4678272 (Sept. 25, 2019)Briggs v. State, 2018 WL 3702493 (August 3, 2018)
Ward v. State, 2017 WL 3392773 (Aug. 8, 2017)Bellosi v. State, 2018 WL 2945049 (June 11, 2018)
Fletcher v. State, 2018 WL 2938321 (June 8, 2018)Money v. State, 2019 WL 4891224 (Oct. 3, 2019)
Maus v. State, 2017 WL 4422978 (Oct. 5, 2017)Bishop v. State, 2018 WL 4793668 (Sept. 19, 2018)
Carroll v. State, 2020 WL 91269 (Jan. 7, 2020)
Stokes v. Maryland, 2018 WL 4005174 (Aug. 21, 2018)

[*] Erica Becker is a third-year law student at the University of Michigan Law School. She served as a summer law clerk with the Office of the Public Defender’s Appellate Division during the summer of 2020.

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