Isley v. State, 6910

Decision Date04 January 2000
Docket NumberNo. 6910,6910
PartiesWilliam Charles ISLEY v. STATE of Maryland.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

John Christopher Belcher, Oxon Hill, for appellant.

Jason F. Trumpbour, Staff Attorney (J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General and Diane E. Keller, Assistant Attorney General, on the brief), Baltimore, for appellee.

Argued before MURPHY, C.J., and MOYLAN and SALMON, JJ.

MOYLAN, Judge.

This appeal affords us the opportunity to examine in some depth the fundamental nature of a Motion for a New Trial. We will be particularly concerned with the threshold question of the reviewability of a trial judge's decision either to deny or to grant a new trial. Our focus will also be on the contrasting natures and purposes of, on the one hand, 1) an appeal of a criminal conviction, which is decided by the objective resolution of legal issues; and, on the other hand, 2) a Motion for a New Trial, which is entrusted to a trial judge's subjective "sense" or "feel" as to whether true justice was done, a matter quite aside from any necessary question of legal error.

The appellant, William Charles Isley, was convicted by a Prince George's County jury of reckless endangerment. On this appeal, he contends:

1. that the evidence was not legally sufficient to support his conviction; and

2. that the trial court abused its discretion in denying his Motion for New Trial.1

The charge stemmed from an incident between the appellant and his wife, Pamela Stevenson, "on or about December 10, 1997" during which the appellant allegedly threatened his wife with a lighted blow torch, pointed a gun at her head, raped, and sodomized her. A number of other charges were initially brought against the appellant. The jury returned the verdicts of not guilty, however, with respect to charges of first-degree assault and of using a handgun in the commission of a felony. A mistrial was declared with respect to the charge of second-degree assault after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The trial court had earlier granted a motion for a judgment of acquittal with respect to the charge of theft. The conviction was only on the charge of reckless endangerment.

The State's Request for Alibi Witnesses

Both of the appellant's contentions arise out of an unusual procedural quirk. Prior to trial, the State filed a motion pursuant to Maryland Rule 4-263(d)2 seeking:

[t]he name and address of each witness other than the defendant whom the defendant intends to call as a witness to show that he was not present at the time, place, and date designated by the State. State alleges that the offenses occurred on or about December 10, 1997, at approximately 9:00 a.m. through 11:30 p.m., at 5838 Holly Springs Road, Capitol Heights, Maryland.

(Emphasis supplied).

In response to the State's request, the appellant filed a "Motion for More Specific Rule 4-263(d)(3) Request." In that motion, he complained that the time period provided in the State's request was "overly broad" in that it required:

the defendant to account for his whereabouts not only for virtually the entire day of December 10, 1997, but for other days "on or about" that same day, which in ordinary language suggests a four or five day period.

The appellant requested that either 1) the State be required "to state the exact date and time, within a two-hour range, when it alleges the defendant committed each of the offenses set forth in the indictment" or 2) the appellant be "excused from compliance with the notice requirements of Rule 4-263." In response to the demand for greater specificity, the State replied that "[a]fter speaking with the complaining witness, the State will provide the following as to the time of the incident: 4:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m." Following the more particularized request, the appellant neither disclosed any potential alibi witnesses for that designated seven-and-a-half-hour time frame nor presented any alibi defense at trial. After the defense motion for a judgment of acquittal was denied at the end of the entire case, the appellant was convicted of reckless endangerment. The appellant subsequently filed 1) a motion to reconsider the motion for judgment of acquittal or, in the alternative, 2) a Motion for New Trial. Both motions were denied.

Legal Sufficiency of the State's Case Unaffected by Amended Request for Alibi Witnesses

The appellant first contends that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a judgment of acquittal based on the failure of the State to produce sufficient evidence that the crime necessarily took place between 4:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. on December 10, 1997, the time of the crime inferentially alleged by the State by its response to the appellant's request for greater specificity in the State's discovery request. This contention goes to the denial of the motion for acquittal made at the end of the entire case, not to the denial of the post-trial motion for a reconsideration of that earlier denial. There has been no appeal from that later denial.

The appellant contends that although he never requested a Bill of Particulars under Maryland Rule 4-241, the State's fine-tuning of its request for discovery "should be viewed as the functional equivalent of a response to an implied Bill of Particulars." The appellant contends that the State was, consequently, required to prove that the offenses did in fact take place between the hours of 4:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. on December 10, 1997. The appellant argues that because the State failed to do so, the evidence was legally insufficient to support his conviction. We do not agree.

The issue of whether information provided by the State to a defendant in a Bill of Particulars is binding on the State at trial is not before us. Although the appellant was entitled, pursuant to Maryland Rule 4-241, to request a Bill of Particulars in this case, the dispositive fact is that he chose not to do so. The issue regarding the time of day the alleged offenses took place only arose in the context of the State's discovery motion pursuant to Rule 4-263(d)(3), seeking the names and addresses of potential alibi witnesses. There is no question that had the State never made such a request, the fact that the evidence was that the assaults may have taken place in the morning rather than in the evening would have been completely unexceptionable. Although the victim could place the attack within a period of a day or two, she was vague as to the precise time of day. The appellant, at the time of the crime, had been married to the victim for approximately two years. At the time of that marriage, he was a widower in his early 60's. He met the victim, who was approximately forty years his junior, when he "picked her up" on Alabama Avenue in the District of Columbia, where she was "cruising" as a prostitute. Contributing to the vagueness of her testimony were the facts that she had been addicted to crack cocaine and that she was taking medication for AIDS.3 She could only fix the day of the crime by recalling that it was approximately two or three days before she filed charges against the appellant on December 11, 1997. As to the time of day, all she could say was that the appellant's attack on her started in the morning and lasted, off and on, until approximately 11 P.M. A perfectly proper indictment gave the State ample latitude within which to place the time of the crime.

We hold that the State's narrowing of a question as part of its request for alibi witnesses under Rule 4-263(d) is not the functional equivalent of an answer to a properly filed Bill of Particulars. The State's response to the appellant's request that the State narrow the time frame in its demand for discovery did not require the State to narrow its proof of guilt. We see no error in the trial court's denial of the appellant's motion for judgment of acquittal based on the alleged insufficiency of the State's evidence.

The Motion for a New Trial: A Poor Vehicle for Challenging Trial Error

The appellant next contends that the trial court abused its discretion in denying his Motion for a New Trial because the State misled him as to when the State's evidence would show that the alleged offenses occurred. He contends that he was thereby misled into forgoing a potential alibi defense. Actually, the appellant originally asserted three separate grounds for relief. He claimed that he was entitled to a new trial on any of three theories:

1. the appellant's "inability to prepare an alibi defense given the misleading particulars provided by the State";

2. the State's conduct during the trial in "eliciting highly prejudicial evidence of uncharged crimes, failing to disclose potentially exculpatory material, and repeatedly attempting to inflame the jury by references to the defendant's alleged character and lifestyle"; and

3. the fact that "two critical defense witnesses refused to testify after being threatened with serious bodily harm by individuals not known to them but whom they believed to be connected with the complaining witness."

Demonstrably, the latter two claims concern alleged trial errors that should more properly have been asserted by way of direct appeal. Although nothing, including trial error, is theoretically barred from consideration on a Motion for a New Trial, trial errors are not classic grist for the New-Trial-Motion mill. If such alleged errors were not preserved for appellate review by timely objection at trial, raising them in a Motion for a New Trial and then appealing the denial of that motion is not a way of outflanking the preservation requirement. Buck v. Cam's Broadloom Rugs, Inc., 328 Md. 51, 61, 612 A.2d 1294 (1992). The non-preservation, moreover, is in and of itself an unassailable reason for the trial judge to deny the New Trial Motion, should he, in his discretion, choose to do so.

Even if preserved by timely objection at trial, such claims of trial error have far...

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