EvidenceProf Blog

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

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Another Recent Case in Which the Maryland AG's Office Claimed an Alibi Hurt a Defendant

On January 27th, the Court of Appeals of Maryland issued its opinion in Seward v. State. In the case,

Around noon on July 26, 1984, a man knocked on Phyllis Diacont’s ("Diacont") door and asked to use her phone after claiming that his car had broken down. Shortly after entering her home, the man raped, robbed, and shot Diacont. Diacont survived and later identified George Cameron Seward (“Seward”) as her attacker.

At trial,

Louise Stamathis (“Stamathis”) testified that Seward had worked at her dog grooming shop during the summer of the attack on Diacont. Because she was caring for her ill husband, however, Stamathis was unable to locate employment records and state whether Seward was at work the week of the crime.

Consequently, Seward was convicted "of first degree rape, first degree sex offense, assault with intent to murder, breaking and entering of a dwelling house, using a handgun in the commission of a felony, and robbery with a dangerous and deadly weapon." Now, he had been found actually innocent based on evidence that the Maryland Attorney General's office claimed supported his guilt. 

I won't get into the complicated procedural history of Seward. It suffices to say that Stamathis eventually found Seward's employment records, which showed him working on the day of the crime. As a result, Seward filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence.

Mr. Seward's former employer Louise Stamathis (“former employer”) testified unequivocally that based on her newly discovered records it would have been “impossible” for Mr. Seward to disappear from work for long enough to commit this crime. (E. 151-52). Her work record was admitted without objection by the State, her testimony was credited, and in 2012 the Circuit Court  for Baltimore County, sitting as an actual innocence court, granted Mr. Seward's actual innocence petition and granted him a new trial. (E. 19-25).

You might think that the Maryland AG's office would have supported Seward's petition, recognizing that they had convicted the wrong man. Instead, it dug in its heels, claiming that this new evidence could actually tend to support his guilt:

[I]t is clear that the contents of the employment note did not provide and alibi, much less contradict a finding that Seward the victim's assailant, as she testified and repeatedly indicated.

Contrary to Seward's assertion that his employer's note provided an alibi by showing that he was at work at the time of the crimes, Ms. Stamathis's handwritten memo at most indicated that Seward was paid $52.00 on July 26, 1984. (App. 1-2). Ms. Stamathis's handwritten note did not indicate if, or what time, Seward arrived to work or finished  working. The note does not account for the fact, even had Seward worked at the pet grooming shop on that date, that he had not left the premises during the lunchtime period, which the trial evidence established to be approximately two miles from the home where the victim was attacked. Indeed, in her testimony at the hearing on the petition for writ of actual innocence, Ms. Stamathis acknowledged that the document did not indicate any employee start or finish time for July 26, 1984, (T. 11/22/11 at 22). She stated that she could not remember that exact day, July 26th. (Id. at 31). Brief and Appendix of Respondent, 2015 WL 5547162 (2015).

The Baltimore City Circuit Court easily turned aside this argument, concluding that

Based on Stamathis's employment records, the Circuit Court concluded that a substantial possibility existed that the result of Seward's trial could have been different. At trial, the State had relied “solely” on Diacont's identification of Seward as her attacker. The records showed that Seward “could not have been at the scene of the crime while the crime was occurring.”

In its opinion last month, the Court of Appeals of Maryland found that it did not have a basis to reverse that decision.

In the end, Seward was not an ineffective assistance of counsel case, but it is a case in which the Maryland AG's office tried the same argument that it tried in the reopened PCR proceedings in the Adnan Syed case. In both cases, when the defendant presented an alibi that covered the time of the crime, the State claimed that the alibi actually placed the defendant in a better position to commit the crime.

In Seward, when it became clear that the defendant's job alibi meant that he couldn't have committed the crime, the AG's office tried to claim that the proximity of that job to the victim's residence gave him the opportunity to commit the crime. In Adnan's case, when it became clear that Asia saw Adnan past the point when the State claimed that Hae had already been killed, the State claimed that they Adnan being at the library until 2:40ish could have hurt Adnan's case if it went with the Debbie/3:00 timeline.*


*Despite the fact that Debbie said Hae was on her way to see Don at the mall as she was leaving school, with Don's alibi being that...he was at work at the time that Hae was killed. 



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Posted by: Cindy | Feb 13, 2016 7:09:42 AM

How can the state change the timeline now after 17 years?

Posted by: Lindy C | Feb 13, 2016 8:27:08 AM

Disclaimer: this post does not serve to defend the states stance on Asia or any of their other convoluted theories and speculation, it is a genuine question on the legal system from someone who's neither a lawyer, nor completely understands how the legal system works (outside of what I’ve learned on Undisclosed).

That said, what control do state prosecutors have over whether or not they are the ones to prosecute a case? While they are obviously the ones that must develop theories and cases based on the evidence brought forth, they are still only working off of whatever evidence the police did (or in many cases, didn’t) provide. In some cases, aren’t they just trying to do the best they can with what they’ve been given? Obviously prosecuting someone just for the sake of prosecution is not exactly taking the moral high ground, but if the DA has decided the prosecution must take place, can some prosecutors genuinely be stuck between a rock and a hard place?

In this case, the judge decided to reopen in the interest of justice as it relates to ineffective assistance of counsel, and misrepresented evidence. Upon that decision, could the DA have said “we agree, this was poorly done…”? Or are they required to make a case for the validity of the initial trial?

Thanks Colin, appreciate all your hard work!!

Posted by: CD | Feb 13, 2016 10:36:41 AM

I may be mistaken, but it is my impression that evidence and testimony presented at a PCR hearing must, by rule, pertain to the arguments presented at the original trial. Wouldn't this preclude the state from advancing an alternate timeline for the crime because it differs from what was presented at trial?
I thought that the state would have to wait for another trail to do that.

Posted by: PatrickB | Feb 13, 2016 12:16:28 PM

CD-You are clearly correct. Like police, prosecutors also seem to follow a stand-by-your-fellow-prosecutor-no-matter-what culture. However, while this may serve to mitigate some of the ethical culpability of specific persons, I think Colin's point is simply that their strategy in doing so here is just dead wrong .

Posted by: Paul | Feb 13, 2016 11:23:04 PM

Cindy: The similarity is striking.

Lindy: I would argue they can’t because such a shift raises more questions than answers. The State is saying they could have claimed that Debbie saw Hae at school at 3:00, making Asia irrelevant. If you do this, however, you have to ask what would have happened to the rest of the case. For instance, what would the jury have done with Inez’s testimony that she saw Hae leaving school in a hurry between 2:15 and 2:20 P.M.? What would it have done with The Nisha Call, which couldn’t have happened under a 3:15 Best Buy call timeline? What would the defense have done differently if the State used the Debbie timeline? Etc.

CD: The State could have joined in Adnan’s petition for a new trial. This is what happened in the Owens case: http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2015/01/the-serial-podcast-what-if-neither-of-them-did-it-marylands-new-dna-standard.html

PatrickB: To prove IAC, the defendant has to establish the reasonable probability of a different outcome at trial if defense counsel acted reasonably. The State is trying to claim that, if defense counsel acted reasonably, the prosecution could have changed its timeline at trial. Of course, as I noted above, this was easier said than done, and the State never called Urick to argue that this would have been feasible.

Paul: Indeed.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Feb 14, 2016 3:55:54 AM

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