Thursday, May 2, 2019
Court of Special Appeals of Maryland Finds Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Based on Failure to Request an Alibi Instruction
Yesterday, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland issued an opinion in a kidnapping/murder case in which the defendant claimed that he received the ineffective assistance of counsel in connection with an alibi. The primary evidence against the defendant was a witness who did not see the kidnapping/murder but who claimed to know all the details of the crime in a story that changed over various tellings. This case was not the Adnan Syed case, but Adnan's case might have ramifications for this case...because the defendant was granted a new trial.
Yesterday's opinion was State v. Mann. As the Court of Special Appeals noted,
On April 22, 2004, between 7:00 p.m. and midnight, Ricky Prince was murdered. The State’s theory of the case was that [Christopher] Mann and an accomplice kidnapped and murdered Prince in retaliation for Prince’s cooperation with police and prosecutors in two other criminal prosecutions. At trial, Mann called four “alibi” witnesses who testified to his whereabouts on April 22, 2004, in an effort to show that he was not present when Prince was kidnapped and murdered. Despite the fact that four alibi witnesses testified in Mann’s defense, Mann’s trial counsel did not request an alibi jury instruction.
That instruction would have told the jury
Evidence has been introduced that the defendant was not there when the crime was committed. You should consider this evidence along with all other evidence in this case. Thus, in order to convict the defendant, the State must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the crime was committed and the defendant committed it.
As I've noted a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel requires the defendant to prove (1) deficient performance; and (2) prejudice. The court's deficient performance analysis was simple. As the State itself acknowledged, "[d]efense counsel simply overlooked requesting the 'alibi' jury instruction, notwithstanding his presentation of an alibi defense."
This then takes us to the prejudice prong. Notably, the court did not summarize the evidence against Mann and determine whether an alibi instruction would have made a difference. Instead, the court summarized prior Maryland precedent on alibi instructions and concluded as follows:
From this language we extract two important concepts. First, there exists a strong concern that a jury will assume that a criminal defendant bears some burden of proof by introducing alibi evidence, even if the word “alibi” is never uttered in the courtroom....Second, if a defendant introduces alibi evidence, the State must overcome that evidence and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the charged crime....By providing an alibi instruction, the trial court sufficiently relieves these concerns. Here, where an alibi instruction was not given because trial counsel failed to request it, there is “a substantial or significant possibility that the verdict of the trier of fact [was] affected.”...Here, Mann was prejudiced because he did not receive the benefit of the alibi instruction as a result of his counsel’s failure to request it.
Given the heightened sensitivity expressed by Maryland courts concerning the importance of the alibi instruction, we hold that the failure (not the disinclination but the failure) of trial counsel to request the instruction in this case constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.
In other words, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland found prejudice despite defense counsel contacting an calling alibi witnesses because (1) an alibi instruction is really important; and (2) trial counsel didn't request one. The court apparently felt no need to review the weight of the State's evidence against Mann.
To find those details, I had to dig up Mann's brief from his direct appeal: Mann v. State, 2006 WL 6364450 (Md.App. 2006). According to that brief,
[Derrick] Harper claimed no first hand knowledge of the crime -- i.e., he denied being at McDonalds at the time of the incident and he denied being present when Prince was killed and he denied being at the scene where the body was found (State's Exhibit #27 at 8, 27). Yet, he claimed to know all of the details of the murder. When he was arrested on April 25, he explained his sources of knowledge as [Mann]....
When Harper, at trial, disavowed some portions of his prior statement.
In other words, Derrick Harper=Jay Wilds, and the evidence against Mann seems very similar to the evidence against Adnan.
And this is where we could see the immediate impact of the Adnan Syed case on (possibly) innocent defendants in Maryland. Yes, an alibi instruction, and I absolutely think that Mann should have gotten a new trial. But now, you know exactly what the State is going to do: They're going to say to the Court of Appeals, "In the Adnan Syed case, you denied a new trial despite an attorney not even contacting an alibi witness. In this case, trial counsel did contact and call alibi witnesses. He just forgot to ask for an alibi instruction. If Adnan didn't get a new trial, Mann shouldn't get a new trial either."
Will that argument work? I don't know, but it's odds of success are now much higher than they were a couple of months ago.