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Accomplice Liability Rule Abrogation

On August 28, 2019, in a landmark decision, the Court of Appeals abrogated the long standing rule that a defendant could not be convicted based solely on the testimony of the defendant’s accomplices. (State v. Jones, No. 52, September Term, 2018). Jones was charged with the murder of Mr. Sandeep Bhulari. The investigation led to six suspects. Fingerprints discovered at the crime scene implicated four of the suspects. Jones was implicated solely by the accounts of three of the suspects. The trial, those three suspects testified pursuant to plea agreements. In addition to their testimony, the State presented testimony from detectives and forensic experts and offered physical evidence. None of the physical evidence directly implicated Jones. Jones was convicted of conspiracy to commit armed carjacking. Jones appealed.

The Court of Special Appeals held that the accomplices’ testimony was not independently corroborated by other evidence and that the accomplice corroboration rule had been violated. However, the panel of the Court of Special Appeals suggested that the Court of Appeals reconsider the accomplice corroboration rule.

The State filed a petition for writ of certiorari which was granted by the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals noted that the rule applies in only a minority of states and determined that it was grounded in outdated legal reasoning. The Court then abrogated the accomplice liability rule as it was previously structured. This decision now leaves exclusively to the jury to assess the credibility of accomplice testimony. In place of the rule, the Court of Appeals has instructed trial judges to give a cautionary instruction when the State chooses to introduce accomplice testimony. As the current Maryland Pattern jury instruction dealing with accomplices covers the now abrogated rule, the jury instruction must be modified.