ANNAPOLIS -- The Court of Appeals overturned yesterday the death sentence of James R. Trimble, who raped a 22-year-old Essex woman, beat her to death with a baseball bat, slit her throat from ear to ear and left her body in a blood-spattered cornfield.
The unanimous court held that Trimble, who is retarded, may have been misled by Circuit Judge Cullen H. Hormes' explanation of Maryland's sentencing procedures in capital cases and thus did not voluntarily waive his right to have a jury decide his sentence.
It ordered a life sentence for Trimble, who was 17 at the time of the killing in 1981 and now cannot be sent to the gas chamber because of a 1987 Maryland law that forbids the death penalty for defendants who were under 18 at the time of their crimes.
The court's decision turned on a few words in Judge Hormes' instructions.
According to the hearing transcript, Judge Hormes told Trimble he had "the authority . . . to impose a sentence for life imprisonment" if the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision "after a reasonable time." The judge should have said he was required to impose such a sentence, Maryland's highest court ruled.
The definition of "authority" contains no notion of a mandatory act, Judge Harry A. Cole wrote for the court. Because of that explanation, Trimble may have believed he could be given a death sentence even if the jury could not decide, the judge reasoned.
"Had he been properly instructed that the judge was required to impose a life sentence if the jury could not decide . . . he may well have taken his chances with the lay persons of the jury in hopes that at least one would not vote to sentence him to death," Judge Cole wrote.
Trimble, who once dropped his appeals but then changed his mind, "is going to be thrilled," said Robert Morin, his lawyer. "He calls me all the time worrying about this."
Two years ago, Roman Catholic Bishops from Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia urged Gov. William Donald Schaefer to commute Trimble's sentence because of his youth when he committed his crime.
"He was the youngest guy on death row, and he was one of four involved in the incident and the only one who got the death penalty," Mr. Morin said.