EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Does the Law of the Case Doctrine Make or Break the State's Case? (Part One)

Adnan's ineffective assistance/cell tower might all come down to something known as the law of the case doctrine, and I have to admit that I'm not entirely sure how the court will rule on the issue. In its Reply Brief and Appendix of Cross-Appellee, the State claims not only that the Court of Special Appeals's remand order was limited to the Asia/alibi issue but that the remand order had to be limited to the Asia/alibi issue based upon the law of the case doctrine. Here's the pertinent portion of the State's  Reply Brief:

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So, does the State have a winning argument on this issue?

I think the key case here is Trimble v. State, 849 A.2d 83 (Md. 2004). In Trimble, James Trimble was  sentenced to death after being convicted of rape, murder, and a double kidnapping. He then lost on direct appeal and brought a PCR petition, claiming that he was not properly advised of his right to be sentenced by a jury. The Court of Appeals of Maryland ultimately remanded the case so that the trial court could change his sentence to life imprisonment.

Trimble later filed a motion to have the victim's body exhumed for DNA testing, and the trial court denied the motion. The Court of Special Appeals then followed suit, treating the motion as a motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. Trimble subsequently filed a request for the appointment of counsel to assist him in obtaining DNA testing. The Court of Special Appeals responded as follows:

As the State points out, no matter was pending before the trial court when Trimble filed his motion for the appointment of counsel. Trimble indicated in his motion that he wanted counsel to assist him in investigating the possibility of obtaining DNA testing. The circuit court had already denied Trimble's motion to have the victim's body exhumed for DNA testing, however, and this Court has affirmed that ruling. Under the law of the case doctrine, "once an appellate court rules upon a question presented on appeal, litigants and lower courts become bound by the ruling, which is considered to be the law of the case." Scott v. State, 379 Md. 170, 183, 840 A.2d 715, 723 (2004).

Meanwhile, in the Scott case, the Court of Appeals of Maryland held that

the Court of Special Appeals erred in its conclusion that Judge Matricciani was bound by Judge Smith's denial of Scott's motion to correct an illegal sentence because the two judges were "colleague[s] of coordinate jurisdiction."...It is for this reason that the doctrine of the law of the case does not apply.

In Maryland,...generally, the "law of the case doctrine is one of appellate procedure."...Under the doctrine, once an appellate court rules upon a question presented on appeal, litigants and lower courts become bound by the ruling, which is considered to be the law of the case....Here, however, there have been no appellate rulings in Scott's case with respect to whether Scott's sentence was illegal; rather, one circuit court judge followed the reasoning of another circuit court judge in the same case. Therefore, the law of the case doctrine is inapplicable. 

So, what does this all mean? I think it means that the law of the case doctrine does not apply in Adnan's case. Why? As I've noted before, Maryland Rule of Criminal Procedure 7-106(a)(1)(ii) states that

(a)   For the purposes of this title, an allegation of error is finally litigated when:

(1)   an appellate court of the State decides on the merits of the allegation:....

(ii)   on any consideration of an application for leave to appeal filed under § 7-109 of this subtitle

Meanwhile, Maryland Rule of Criminal Procedure 7-109 covers Applications for Leave to Appeal (ALAs), with 7-109(b)(3) and 7-109(b)(4) covering ALAs by the State:

(3)      If the application for leave to appeal is granted:....

(ii)      the Court of Special Appeals may:

1.      affirm, reverse, or modify the order appealed from

2.      remand the case for further proceedings.

(4)      If the application for leave to appeal is denied, the order sought to be reviewed becomes final.

In other words, the Court of Special Appeals did not rule on the question presented on appeal in Adnan's case, which it could have done by denying the State leave to appeal (a tacit affirmance) or affirming, reversing, or modifying Judge Welch's order granting Adnan a new trial. Therefore, (1) the Court of Special Appeals did not "rule[] upon a question presented on appeal;" and (2) Judge Welch's order did not become final. Instead, the Court of Special Appeals remanded the case back down to Judge Welch for further proceedings. Therefore, like in Scott, there was no appellate ruling in the case, the law of the case doctrine did not apply, and Judge Welch was not bound by his prior order denying Adnan a new trial.

But does that just mean that Judge Welch could change his ruling on the Asia/alibi issue, or does it also mean that Judge Welch could hear the cell tower claim? I will get to this issue in my next post.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2017/05/adnans-ineffective-assistancecell-tower-might-all-come-down-to-something-known-as-the-law-of-the-case-doctrine-and-i-have-t.html

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Comments

Where has the copy of the reply brief come from? It doesn't seem to have been released publicly, even though it has a journalist's name attached to it?

Posted by: Cupcake | May 2, 2017 7:24:34 AM

Is there a reason the case the state cited to no longer applies? And why the Trimble/Scott cases would be a better fit?

Posted by: Cupcake | May 2, 2017 9:00:00 AM

Cupcake: This reply brief comes from Justin Fenton. As for the case cited by the State, it still applies, but its holding isn’t different from the holdings in Trimble and Scott. We can see it from the language in the court in John Hancock: “One this court has ruled upon a question properly presented on an appeal….” In Adnan’s case, neither the Court of Special Appeals or Court of Special Appeals has rule upon Adnan’s claim(s) of ineffective assistance of counsel. Instead, the Court of Special Appeals remanded back to the circuit court. Of course, there’s also the second part of the law of the case doctrine dealing with questions that “could have been raised,” and I will address that in my next post.

Posted by: Colin | May 2, 2017 9:34:19 AM

Thanks for answering. Just to follow up... 1) Did Justin Fenton pass the copy directly to you, or did it go via a few people first? (And did he get a copy from the courthouse once it was filed, or from the state directly? Does the defence get an electronic copy as well as the mailed copy - or did Justin Fenton get to read the brief before Justin Brown did?)

2. Why do you refer to the Trimble case as the 'key' case - if the earlier case is still good law?

Posted by: Cupcake | May 2, 2017 11:09:02 AM

Cupcake: 1. Someone e-mailed me the link.

2. I say Trimble is that key case because it was a PCR case. It's not saying anything meaningfully different from the John Hancock case, but it's applying the law of the case doctrine to the PCR context.

Posted by: Colin | May 2, 2017 1:20:01 PM

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