Court overturns murder conviction

December 03, 1991|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- The Court of Special Appeals overturned yesterday the murder conviction of a Rockville man in the death of his estranged wife because the trial judge decided the case was required to be tried by a jury.

Charles L. Thomas, 41, should have been allowed to waive his right to a jury trial and ask for a trial by a judge alone, Maryland's intermediate appellate court ruled. It sent the case back to Montgomery County.

The Montgomery County state's attorney's office will decide whether to prosecute Mr. Thomas again on the charge.

"That's wonderful, great," shouted Reginald W. Bours III, who represented Mr. Thomas at his Montgomery Circuit Court trial in July and August 1990.

Mr. Thomas was convicted by a Montgomery County jury of kicking in the door of his estranged wife's apartment in Silver Spring early on the morning of Nov. 18, 1987, and mortally wounding her with a shotgun. Frances K. Thomas, 33, died two hours later at the Washington Hospital Center.

At one pretrial hearing, Mr. Thomas was declared incompetent, but that decision was reversed at a second hearing.

Mr. Bours asked Circuit Judge Irma S. Raker for a trial without a jury, arguing at a bench conference that he did not believe his client understood the difference between the procedures. Mr. Bours said he believed Mr. Thomas "wants to leave decisions up to me," according to court records.

When Judge Raker asked Mr. Thomas whether he knew what a jury trial was, the defendant replied, "Not right off," court records show.

The judge decided Mr. Thomas could not properly waive his right to a jury trial and ordered that he should have one.

But the Court of Special Appeals held that Judge Raker should have explained the differences to Mr. Thomas, then asked him whether he wanted a jury trial or judge trial.

Mr. Thomas "did not have any opportunity to choose . . . because the court, without any explanation of the modes of trial determined that it had the unilateral authority to require that the appellant be tried by a jury," Judge Dale R. Cathell wrote for the three-judge panel.

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