Court upholds manslaughter conviction in McDonald's stabbing

Says jury was right to conclude suspect engaged in 'mutual combat'

September 01, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

One man stabbed another in an argument over marijuana — hardly a unique motive for a killing in Baltimore.

But this confrontation occurred on South Calvert Street in the heart of the city's tourist district, two blocks from the Inner Harbor. It happened shortly after 10 in the morning on a warm spring day in April 2007.

It happened in a stairwell of a McDonald's restaurant.

A tourist from New York followed the suspect and called the police, who quickly made an arrest.

Lewis Edward Rich, 22, who lived in Lower Charles Village, was charged with first-degree murder but was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

But he wasn't satisfied with escaping a charge that could have sent him to prison for life. He appealed seeking to nullify the guilty finding, arguing that the evidence presented in Baltimore Circuit Court didn't meet the legal threshold for manslaughter — that there was a "lack of any evidence of hot blooded response to legally adequate provocation."

The white victim, Ernest Buchanan Jr., spit at Rich, who is black, and uttered a racial slur, according to trial testimony.

Jurors sent a note to the judge: "Is spitting a legally adequate provocation?" to mitigate a murder charge.

Circuit Judge Paul E. Alpert said yes.

Rich's attorney did not object.

The jury found Rich guilty of manslaughter but acquitted him of first- and second-degree murder.

The Court of Special Appeals found in Rich's favor and threw out the conviction, ruling that the "evidence presented to the jury was insufficient" to prove manslaughter. But the Court of Appeals rejected the lower court's findings and upheld the conviction in a ruling issued Tuesday.

The judges noted that "it is well settled that provocative words — even if accompanied by some physical contact — do not constitute adequate provocation to mitigate a murder [or] a manslaughter."

That means it takes more than just foul language and even a few punches to legally justify a victim who retaliates and kills. For lethal force to be used, courts usually require that the person's life be in immediate danger.

But in this case, the judges ruled, "the jury was entitled to accept [Rich's] claim that he had been vilified and spat upon by the victim, find that the victim's conduct was something the natural tendency of which is to produce passion in ordinary men and women … and find that [Rich] inflicted a single stab wound upon the victim during mutual combat."

And that's how a man who stabbed another man in a downtown restaurant gets 10 years in prison. It's the maximum sentence allowed by law for the crime for which Rich was convicted.

No one disputed that the argument was over drugs. Rich and another man followed Buchanan into the McDonald's stairwell and stopped halfway between the first and second floors. Rich told police that he followed the men but denied that he planned to rob the victim and said he did not stab him. He did say he punched Buchanan, who had wanted to purchase $500 worth of marijuana, because of the racial slur.

There were four surveillance cameras in the restaurant but none in the stairwell. One captured Buchanan emerging from the stairs and sitting in a chair, his chest heaving, and then collapsing on the floor as patrons ate their breakfast.

It was Rich's attorney who requested that the judge instruct the jury to consider manslaughter, to give them another option beyond first- or second-degree murder. The judge agreed, and the jury embraced the option.

The appeals court said that Rich cannot now argue that the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction on the very charge he himself asked the judge to add to the case. "A defendant who himself invites or creates error cannot obtain a benefit — mistrial or reversal — from that error, the judges ruled.

They concluded: "There is no merit in the argument that [Rich] is entitled to walk free."

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