Within the last 10 days, the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned the first-degree murder convictions of two Mexican men in the gruesome murders of three children in Baltimore in 2004; the manslaughter conviction of Ricky Savoy in the death of Marvin Watts in Baltimore in 1993; and the second-degree murder conviction of Raymond Lupfer in the shooting death of Jeremy Yarbray in Cecil County in 2007.
In each case, the state's highest court said, the trial judge made mistakes.
One judge failed to tell attorneys about five "substantive" notes that came from the jury during trial. Another judge gave the jury a flawed definition of what constitutes "reasonable doubt." And the third allowed evidence that never should have been admitted. (All three judges are now retired)
Getting it perfect the first time is a challenge; trial judges have tough jobs. But a couple of these cases are head-scratchers.
Take, for instance, David B. Mitchell, the Baltimore Circuit Court judge who opted to keep to himself certain questions the jury asked during the two-month trial of Policarpio Espinoza Perez and Adan Canela in the murders of three young relatives in 2004.
It is the common practice of all the judges I've seen over the years to apprise prosecution and defense of notes from juries — sometimes even the ones asking for bathroom breaks. But it didn't happen in this case; that was a mistake. And that means no one stands convicted now of these heinous murders, and it's possible no one ever will. Given that most of the witnesses have gone back to Mexico, another Perez-Canela trial appears unlikely.
In the second matter, the Court of Appeals overturned the involuntary manslaughter conviction of Ricky Savoy, a teenager when he was convicted of fatally shooting Marvin Watts in an apparent struggle over a bicycle in Baltimore 18 years ago. The court said the trial judge, Thomas Ward, erred in preparing the jury for deliberations. "The instructional error was serious," the court majority said, "as it undermined a core value of constitutional criminal jurisprudence: that a person charged with a crime shall not be convicted on less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt."
Pardon me, but I thought everyone, even those of us who didn't attend law school, knew that by now.
The third case, the one from Cecil County, was more nuanced, demonstrating the complex challenges faced by judges in giving each criminal defendant a constitutionally sound trial.
In this case, Raymond Lupfer was accused of shooting a young man named Jeremy Yarbray at a house in North East in June 2007.
Witnesses testified that the two men knew each other, and apparently not in a good way. There was a confrontation, and it ended with Mr. Lupfer fatally shooting Mr. Yarbray.
Mr. Lupfer, however, testified that he merely had stumbled into a fight between Mr. Yarbray and a third man. Seeing a gun on the floor, Mr. Lupfer grabbed the weapon and, in a brief struggle with Mr. Yarbray, the gun discharged three times. Mr. Lupfer said the shooting was an accident.
He also testified — and this is key — that, after having fled the scene to New Jersey for a couple of days, he decided to return to Maryland and "go talk to the police."
That statement prompted the prosecutor to ask for a bench conference. He knew that Mr. Lupfer had never cooperated with the investigating State Police, and the prosecutor wanted to make that point to the jury, with the judge's permission. Tricky territory, this. Under Miranda principles, a defendant's silence cannot be used against him; jurors are human and infer guilt from those who invoke the Fifth Amendment. But, the state argued, Mr. Lupfer had "opened the door" for cross-examination about whether he had talked to police.
The trial judge, O. Robert Lidums, agreed and allowed a State Police sergeant to testify that, upon being arrested, Mr. Lupfer had refused to speak to investigators and had asked for a lawyer.
The jury convicted Mr. Lupfer of second-degree murder. He received a 40-year prison sentence.
But last week, the Court of Appeals wiped that away, saying testimony about Mr. Lupfer's intentions should not have "opened the door" to testimony about what he ultimately did. Allowing that testimony was the trial judge's error, the appeals court said, and, "We cannot say beyond a reasonable doubt that the error was harmless."
So Mr. Lupfer gets a new trial, and the state gets a do-over. This all sounds cumbersome and costly, and it is. Judges make mistakes, but hopefully other judges find them. That's the system — crime and punishment, trial and error — and the best one we've got.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His email is email@example.com.