Court reverses murder conviction

Judge didn't tell lawyers about note from jury in 1997 Isaacs trial

July 06, 2000|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

The state Court of Special Appeals reversed yesterday a 1997 Baltimore County murder conviction because the judge failed to read to lawyers a note he had received from the jury.

The note was sent to Circuit Judge Christian M. Kahl during deliberations in the trial of William R. Isaacs of Baltimore, who was charged in the killing of 22-year-old Mark Schwandtner in 1978.

Schwandtner, of Towson, had been beaten over the head and thrown from a railroad trestle into the Big Gunpowder River near the Harford County line. Two other men charged with murder in the killing and a woman charged as an accessory have yet to come to trial.

At the end of Isaacs' trial, the jurors indicated in a handwritten note that they were deadlocked. The judge wrote back, "Do you believe your inability to agree is permanent and hopeless?"

Though the court record does not show whether jurors answered the judge, they convicted Isaacs, 47, of second-degree murder. He is serving a 30-year sentence.

The note was found in the court file by Isaacs' lawyers who used it as one of several grounds for appeal.

In April last year, the Court of Special Appeals upheld Isaacs' conviction, but sent the case back to Kahl to determine if the jury note should have been divulged to lawyers and Isaacs. Kahl ruled his failure to show them the note was "harmless beyond a reasonable doubt."

But yesterday, the appeals court disagreed. "We cannot find beyond a reasonable doubt that the error was harmless," it wrote.

Had the judge revealed the note, the court wrote in its 10-page opinion, defense attorneys could have asked the judge to give a so-called "Allen charge, encouraging jurors to maintain personal integrity and not to surrender personal convictions to reach a verdict."

The state can now ask the Court of Appeals to review the case. If that happens and yesterday's ruling is upheld, the Baltimore County state's attorney's office would have the option of retrying Isaacs. County Assistant State's Attorney James O'C. Gentry Jr. declined to comment yesterday.

Isaacs' lawyers, Clarke Ahlers and Donald Daneman, said the court's ruling confirmed that all jury notes must be shared with the defendant and lawyers in a case.

"In a fair system of justice, communications between a judge and jury must be disclosed," Ahlers said.

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