Judge upholds murder verdict in Owens trial

Defense filed appeal because one juror wasn't a U.S. citizen

Howard County

July 22, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

The presence of a resident alien on the jury that convicted a 33-year-old Columbia man of murder last month is not grounds for setting aside the verdict and ordering a new trial, a Howard County Circuit judge ruled yesterday.

Although U.S. citizenship is a requirement of jury service under Maryland law, lawyers for Marcus D. Owens never challenged the juror's qualifications to serve on the panel during the selection process and therefore gave up the right to object later, Judge Diane O. Leasure wrote in an 11-page opinion.

Without evidence of bias or other wrongdoing, the "mere presence and participation" of juror Adeyemi Alade, a resident alien from Nigeria, is not enough to invalidate the verdict, the judge wrote, noting a Supreme Court case that dates to the late 19th century, a Maryland appellate decision and cases from other states.

"There was no evidence presented in the case ... to suggest that the presence of Mr. Alade on the jury in any way denied the defendant a fair and impartial trial or violated his due process rights," Leasure wrote.

The decision, which echoed arguments made by Senior Assistant State's Attorney Mary Murphy in legal filings and during a hearing Friday, pleased prosecutors and brought some relief to the family of the case's young victim, Kevonte Davis.

Owens, the boy's stepfather, was convicted June 10 of second-degree murder, child abuse and assault in the beating of the 2-year-old. Owens is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 1.

"I'm just glad that we don't have to go through it all over again," said Kenesha Davis, 22, Kevonte's mother.

Louis P. Willemin, Owens' public defender who argued that the citizenship requirement "takes on a different significance" because of the loyalty it implies to the United States and its institutions, said he was disappointed by the ruling.

He was noncommittal on whether the issue would be appealed, saying a decision was up to his office's appellate division.

Citizenship issue

The citizenship question raised in the Owens case is a "key issue" ripe for appellate review in Maryland, said Abraham A. Dash, a University of Maryland School of Law professor. "No doubt the Maryland Court of Appeals will take the case and resolve the issue," he said.

Dash said the judge's use of a U.S. Supreme Court case as precedent is "persuasive."

Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore School of Law professor, said the judge "came to the correct result."

"I am persuaded by her analysis," Warnken said.

Yesterday's decision brought at least some answers for a case that has been in a state of flux since the discovery, one day after the verdict, that Alade is not a U.S. citizen. Alade, a master's degree candidate in mechanical engineering at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has said that he missed references to citizenship on a juror questionnaire, and that he only learned of the requirement when a colleague said something to him the night of the verdict.

The county has used the Motor Vehicle Administration database, which includes noncitizens, as a source of potential jurors since 1995, and Alade has said he has a driver's license.

In her opinion, Leasure said the jury questionnaire is "confusing." The document asks prospective jurors to note whether they are qualified before listing the factors that would disqualify someone, she wrote.

The questionnaire

Leasure and Howard jury commissioner Steve Merson said they are looking at ways to change and simplify the questionnaire as a result of the case.

Court officials also have modified the way they screen jurors: Merson now mentions the requirements during his morning talk to prospective jurors, and prosecutors have added the qualifications to the list of questions they want Howard judges to ask during the voir dire - or jury questioning - process. Leasure said she plans to ask those questions in all cases.

"We do recognize that with the ... motor vehicle rolls, we have to be much more careful," said State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone.

McCrone said he was also was heartened by Leasure's ruling.

"We appreciate the fact that it recognizes the sacred quality of the jury verdict," he said.

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