A three-judge panel of Maryland's Court of Special Appeals on Monday tossed out the conviction of a man found guilty of murder last year in Baltimore County Circuit Court and ordered that he be tried again.
Thomas B. Harris was accused of fatally stabbing another man, Karim Cross, in the parking lot of the Rush Hour Bar in Randallstown in the early hours of Aug. 13, 2006. A jury convicted Harris of second-degree murder and in May 2008 he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In his appeal, Harris, 35, questioned his conviction on various grounds, but the appeals court found cause for reversal in only one of his arguments: that the trial court abused its discretion when it refused to declare a mistrial after it became known that the defense had not been informed of a communication between a juror and the trial judge's secretary.
At issue was the juror's continued ability to serve on the panel after his grandmother died during the trial. The juror was kept on the panel even though alternate jurors were available to replace him, and his request that he be excused was denied. The defense was not informed of the content of the juror's conversations with the judge's secretary until after the alternates had been dismissed, Harris claimed.
The appeals court's decision, written by Judge Robert A. Zarnoch with input from Judges Deborah S. Eyler and Albert J. Matricciani Jr., said the obligation to notify the defense of a communication from the jury "is rooted in the defendant's constitutional right to be present at every stage of trial."
The judges said they could not rule out that Harris might have been prejudiced by the court's "failure to promptly disclose" the conversations, even if it was impossible to know "whether the juror whose grandmother died or other jurors failed to deliberate properly or rushed to reach a verdict."
Ann Brobst, an assistant state's attorney for Baltimore County, noted Monday that the appeals court's finding was "very procedural" and had nothing to do "with this man's guilt or innocence." She said a new trial would take place in the next four to eight months.
"It's always disappointing when a case is reversed on appeal and has to be retried, but that's what we'll do," said Brobst, whose colleague Garret Glennon prosecuted Harris last time and will do so again.