Hunt v. State

Decision Date01 September 1987
Docket NumberNo. 53,53
Citation312 Md. 494,540 A.2d 1125
PartiesFlint Gregory HUNT v. STATE of Maryland. ,
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Mark Colvin, Asst. Public Defender (Alan H. Murrell, Public Defender, on the brief), Baltimore, for appellant.

Valerie J. Smith, Asst. Atty. Gen. (J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Atty. Gen. and Gary E. Bair, Asst. Atty. Gen., on brief), Baltimore, for appellee.

Argued before MURPHY, C.J., and ELDRIDGE, COLE, RODOWSKY, McAULIFFE, ADKINS and BLACKWELL, JJ.

MURPHY, Chief Judge.

Appellant Hunt was convicted by a jury in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City of the first degree murder of a police officer and sentenced to death. He was also convicted of (1) using a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence and (2) unlawfully wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun, for which he received consecutive sentences, respectively, of twenty and three years' imprisonment. In light of Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. ----, 107 S.Ct. 2529, 96 L.Ed.2d 440 (1987), the death sentence will be vacated and a new sentencing hearing held on the capital conviction because a victim impact statement was improperly admitted in evidence at the sentencing hearing.

Hunt frames four issues for our consideration on this appeal: (1) whether a mistrial should have been granted when at trial members of the slain officer's family became emotionally upset in the jury's presence and had to leave the courtroom upon hearing a tape of a police recording transmitted immediately prior to and after the officer's murder; (2) whether Hunt was denied a fair trial due to the presence of jail guards in the courtroom during the trial, and because one or more correctional officers were required to accompany him to bench conferences; (3) whether the trial court erred in admitting evidence of Hunt's flight after the crimes were committed; and (4) whether the trial court erred in imposing separate and consecutive sentences for both the use of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence and unlawfully wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun.

I

While on patrol the evening of November 18, 1985 at approximately 5:20 p.m., Officer Vincent Adolpho noticed a new Cadillac with a missing window covered with plastic. In addition to the driver, the vehicle contained three other occupants. The officer, following a routine stolen car inquiry, learned that the car had been stolen. He broadcast a description of the occupants of the car and noted that the driver was "not breaking any laws right now."

Two officers in separate patrol cars, responding to Officer Adolpho's request for back-up, attempted to block the path of the on-coming Cadillac. Upon nearing the roadblock, the driver, later identified as Hunt, jumped out of the car while it was still moving and ran up a nearby alley. The Cadillac then struck one of the parked patrol cars and stopped; an officer detained the three passengers who were still in the car.

Officer Adolpho pursued Hunt into the alley. Upon apprehending him, the officer positioned him against a wall and tried to handcuff Hunt. Hunt pushed away, knocking the officer off balance. Hunt then pulled a .357 Magnum from his jacket and shot Officer Adolpho in the chest at close range. Within seconds, as the officer reeled from the first shot, Hunt shot him again, this time in the back. Hunt fled the scene of the crime. Officer Adolpho was pronounced dead at the hospital at 6 p.m.

In the meantime, Hunt had called his friend, Angelo Williams, and asked him to keep the gun for him, saying that he had just shot a policeman. Hunt and his girl friend, Deborah Powell, then went to his sister's house, only to leave when a television broadcast indicated that Hunt was being sought in connection with the murder. Hunt's sister later testified at trial that Hunt had seemed fine at the time, although Ms. Powell said that Hunt had been taking drugs earlier that afternoon and appeared "high" when he had left her.

The next day, Hunt and Powell drove to Camden, New Jersey. En route, Hunt admitted to Powell that he had shot the policeman. Hunt then boarded a bus to Santa Monica, California, leaving Powell behind. He was apprehended at a Tulsa, Oklahoma bus station five days later.

In addition to the testimony of both Williams and Powell that Hunt admitted shooting the officer, a ballistics expert testified that the bullets removed from Officer Adolpho's body matched the gun later recovered from Williams's place.

II

During the trial, a tape of police radio communications recorded at the time of the shooting was admitted over objection; while the tape was being played, members of the victim's family left the courtroom. Hunt now argues that the trial judge erred both in admitting the tape and in not declaring a mistrial when the victim's family displayed signs of emotional distress in front of the jury. We find no merit in either contention.

Prior to trial, defense counsel moved to exclude Officer Adolpho's widow from the courtroom when the tape was to be played in anticipation of her crying when she heard it. The trial judge denied the motion, finding that he could not "close the courtroom doors to her." At trial, when the tape was played, there was a reaction by some person or persons in the courtroom, in response to which defense counsel moved for a mistrial, stating: "[S]everal members of the victim's family had to exit the courtroom, and they were crying as they exited the courtroom." The trial judge, after noting that the family "left quietly" and caused "no disturbance," refused to grant the motion.

Hunt now asserts that the emotional reaction of the family, particularly of the wife, is "tantamount to victim impact evidence," the use of which in a capital prosecution violated the precepts of Booth v. Maryland, supra. Booth relates to the sentencing phase of a capital case and holds that the use of victim impact statements offended the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In Booth, members of the victims' family "were articulate and persuasive in expressing their grief and the extent of their loss." 482 U.S. at ----, 107 S.Ct. at 2534, 96 L.Ed.2d at 450. The victims' son said that his parents were " 'butchered like animals.' " Id. [540 A.2d 1128] at ----, 107 S.Ct. at 2535-36, 96 L.Ed.2d at 451-52. The victims' daughter expressed similar sentiments, saying that animals wouldn't kill as brutally as the murderers had; and that they should never be released as she didn't want another family to have to go through what her family had endured. These emotionally-charged remarks, the Court said, could only serve "to inflame the jury and divert it from deciding the case on the relevant evidence concerning the crime and the defendant." Id. In contrast, the effect on the jury in the present case of seeing some individuals, not identified to the jurors on the record, quietly departing when they were apparently emotionally moved by the recording does not even begin to approach the emotional remarks found impermissible by the Supreme Court in Booth. 1 Thus, assuming arguendo the applicability at the trial stage of Booth's rationale, the prejudice apparent in Booth is simply not present here.

Nor can we find on the record in this case that the trial judge erred in not granting a mistrial. The conduct of criminal trials falls within the sound discretion of the trial judge which will not be disturbed absent a clear abuse of discretion. Smith v. State, 299 Md. 158, 179, 472 A.2d 988 (1984); Poole v. State, 295 Md. 167, 180, 453 A.2d 1218 (1983); Wilhelm v. State, 272 Md. 404, 413, 326 A.2d 707 (1974). Of course, the trial judge is in the best position to evaluate any prejudicial effect the presence or actions of the officer's family may have had on the jury. In this regard, the trial judge, prior to trial, took several precautionary measures to ensure that the trial would not be disrupted. Before permitting the recording to be played in court, he listened to the tape in chambers. He was therefore able to assess beforehand whether any portions of the tape were particularly gruesome or sensational as might evoke a strong emotional reaction from those listening to it. Secondly, the judge directed that the officer's family be advised that they "must maintain decorum at all times," which was done. Finally, when the trial began that day, the judge noted on the record that the family members were composed at the time. 2

Emotional responses in a courtroom are not unusual, especially in criminal trials, and manifestly the defendant is not entitled to a mistrial every time someone becomes upset in the course of the trial. In Messer v. Kemp, 760 F.2d 1080 (11th Cir.1985), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1088, 106 S.Ct. 864, 88 L.Ed.2d 902 (1986), an FBI agent was on the stand recounting the accused's own depiction of how he had murdered a child. The child's father became enraged and lunged toward the defendant, shouting that the defendant would pay for what he had done. In spite of this action, the court upheld the trial judge's refusal to grant a mistrial, reasoning that the trial judge was best able "to evaluate the prejudicial effect of a spectator's outburst." Id. at 1087. 3 Moreover, unlike the record in the present case, the record in Messer discloses precisely what occurred in the courtroom when the father attempted to attack the defendant. Without the incident preserved in the record, we cannot speculate as to what transpired, but rather defer to the trial judge's assessment. See Bart v. Bart, 182 Md. 477, 481, 35 A.2d 125 (1943) (court must decide cases upon the face of the record).

Finally, courts from other jurisdictions have overwhelmingly held that the determination of whether a new trial or mistrial should be granted because of allegedly prejudicial behavior on the part of victims' families or courtroom spectators is largely within the sound discretion of the trial judge, and only rarely will the...

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