Johnson v. State

Decision Date01 September 1984
Docket NumberNos. 21,28,s. 21
Citation495 A.2d 1,303 Md. 487
PartiesLawrence JOHNSON v. STATE of Maryland. ,
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Page 498

George E. Burns, Jr., Asst. Public Defender, Baltimore (Alan H. Murrell, Public Defender, and Julia Doyle Bernhardt, Asst. Public Defender, Baltimore, on brief), for appellant.

Valerie V. Cloutier, Asst. Atty. Gen., Baltimore (Stephen H. Sachs, Atty. Gen., and Deborah K. Chasanow, Asst. Atty. Gen., Baltimore, on brief), for appellee.

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Argued before MURPHY, C.J., SMITH, ELDRIDGE, COLE, RODOWSKY and COUCH, JJ., and EDWARD D. HIGINBOTHOM, Associate Judge of the Third Judicial Circuit of Maryland (retired), specially assigned.

COUCH, Judge.

Lawrence Johnson and Dwayne Mayers were charged in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County with causing the death of 78 year old Esther Rosenblatt. After Johnson's motions for severance and removal were granted, Johnson was tried and convicted before a jury in the Circuit Court for Harford County of first degree premeditated murder, daytime housebreaking and robbery. 1 The same jury subsequently sentenced Johnson to death; however, because the court (Close, J.) later determined that its instruction as to joint principals in the first degree was inadequate, the sentence was vacated and a new sentencing proceeding ordered. A second jury was impanelled and the death sentence was again imposed.

On this direct appeal, 2 after carefully scrutinizing the record and Johnson's numerous challenges to the trial and second sentencing proceeding, we affirm.

The Facts

The tragic events surrounding the Rosenblatt murder were revealed through testimony adduced at trial and by Johnson's confession to law enforcement authorities.

The record establishes that on January 9, 1979, Johnson and his close friend and cousin, Dwayne Mayers, decided to secure some extra spending money. They agreed that burgling a house presented their most profitable option. A

Page 500

home at 6822 Fox Meadow Road in Baltimore County--the Rosenblatt home--was selected for this criminal endeavor.

A basement window, easily broken, provided the means of entry. Once inside, the sounds of Miss Rosenblatt's humming informed them they were not alone in the dwelling.

Johnson's confession disclosed that at this juncture he stealthily proceeded to Miss Rosenblatt's location and grabbed her from behind. He demanded to know the whereabouts of any cash. Miss Rosenblatt was confused and did not respond in a manner satisfactory to the men. She led them to a bedroom and surrendered the $10 found in her billfold. Mayers performed his own search of the premises and discovered a sum of money amounting to less than $200.

According to Johnson, Miss Rosenblatt's inadequate cooperation, coupled with the men's desire to leave no witnesses to their act, spelled the victim's demise. First she was taken to a spare room where Johnson stated that he repeatedly jumped on her chest in an attempt to induce a heart attack. These futile efforts only succeeded in fracturing the victim's ribs and induced cries of agony from her.

Johnson next seized a broom and attempted to beat the woman to death; a break in the handle rendered this instrument useless.

Finally, Johnson and Mayers decided to kill the victim by hanging her with several of the men's ties that they had spied in the closet of the room. First they took a number of these implements and bound Miss Rosenblatt's hands and feet. Next, with an additional tie, they secured the victim's ankles to the closet doorknob. Her undergarments were pulled down to her knees.

An electric cord was then ripped from a nearby radio and cinched to a bedpost. A loop and slipknot were fashioned with the free end and placed around the victim's neck. As one man slammed the closet door the other kicked the bed in the opposite direction; this forced the victim to be suspended

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from the ground by her neck and ankles and caused her to be strangled from the weight of her own body.

Johnson stated that the men attempted to divert suspicion and obscure their motive for the torture and killing of Miss Rosenblatt by writing on a wall near the deceased "Halter Skilter Gang (sic)," "B.P." and "W.A.S.T." A circle, arrow and squiggly line were also drawn. In the kitchen was found an apple placed on each of the four stove burners, along with a burned object in the oven.

The police received a break in the case when Johnson was questioned while incarcerated on another murder charge. 3 Authorities also separately interrogated Mayers concerning his role in the Rosenblatt murder. Both men confessed to the crime, with each man claiming that he alone tied and strangled the victim to death. Based on this and other evidence, the men were charged as joint perpetrators of the crime. After severance, Johnson was tried and convicted of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to death. This direct appeal followed.

Additional facts will be supplied in the appropriate sections dealing with Johnson's legal arguments.


Twenty issues are raised by Johnson for our consideration in this appeal. First, he contends that the trial court should have permitted testimony from several medical sources regarding his diminished capacity to commit first degree murder. While Johnson recognizes that we have previously ruled out admitting evidence of this type so as to establish a defense to first degree murder, see Johnson, supra, note 3, he urges us to reconsider this holding in light of Judge Eldridge's dissent in that case.

We extensively discussed our reasons for not permitting testimony and evidence of this kind in Johnson, supra,

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292 Md. at 417-29, 439 A.2d at 549-556. We reasoned, in part, that "because the legislature, reflecting community morals, has, by its definition of criminal insanity, already determined which states of mental disorder ought to relieve one from criminal responsibility, this Court is without authority to impose our views in this regard even if they differed." Id. at 425-26, 439 A.2d at 554. We reaffirmed this holding in Stebbing v. State, 299 Md. 331, 344, 473 A.2d 903, 909, cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 105 S.Ct. 276, 83 L.Ed.2d 212 (1984), and do not choose to depart from it.


Johnson next argues that the court erred in admitting into evidence certain photographs of the victim. The contested photographs consisted of one color photograph of the victim taken at the scene of the crime, and five black and white photographs contained in the autopsy report.

We have consistently held that whether or not a photograph is of practical value in a case and admissible at trial is a matter best left to the sound discretion of the trial judge. Bowers v. State, 298 Md. 115, 135-36, 468 A.2d 101, 111-12 (1983), quoting Cook v. State, 225 Md. 603, 608, 171 A.2d 460, 463 (1961), cert. denied, 368 U.S. 970, 82 S.Ct. 445, 7 L.Ed.2d 398 (1962). A court's determination in this area will not be disturbed unless plainly arbitrary. Id. Under this standard, we have permitted the reception into evidence of photographs depicting the condition of the victim and the location of injuries upon the deceased, Clarke v. State, 238 Md. 11, 21-22, 207 A.2d 456, 461-62 (1965); the position of the victim's body at the murder site, Brice v. State, 264 Md. 352, 368-69, 286 A.2d 132, 140 (1972); and the wounds of the victim, Madison v. State, 200 Md. 1, 7-8, 87 A.2d 593, 595 (1952). On certain occasions, photographs have also been admitted to allow the jury to visualize the atrociousness of the crime--a circumstance of much import where the factfinder must determine the degree of murder.

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See Fuller v. State, 45 Md.App. 414, 420-21, 413 A.2d 277, 280-81 (1980).

Considering the color photograph first, we perceive no error or arbitrariness in the trial court's ruling as to its admissibility. The photograph in question was taken at the Rosenblatt residence and portrayed the location of injuries on the victim's body. This corroborated Johnson's confession that he first beat, and then killed, Miss Rosenblatt. Objections by the defendant to two other color photographs were sustained by the court.

The five black and white photographs were also correctly admitted into evidence. These photographs were part of the medical examiner's record and are ordinarily admissible at trial subject to the discretion of the trial judge. Bowers, supra, 298 Md. at 135-36, 468 A.2d at 111-12. See also, Maryland Code (1982), Health-General Article, § 5-311(d) (a medical examiner's record is competent evidence in any court in this State of the matters and facts contained in it; "record" means the result of a view or examination of or an autopsy on a body). We find no abuse of discretion in the admission of these photographs.

Johnson further challenges the photographs by contending that the photographs did not illustrate any issue in controversy and that they were cumulative proof of what was already in evidence.

We find this argument unpersuasive. We have previously held that photographs of the deceased are admissible even where the location of injuries was previously described and conceded by the defendant. Smith v. State, 182 Md. 176, 187, 32 A.2d 863, 867 (1943); Snowden v. State, 133 Md. 624, 631, 106 A. 5, 8 (1919). The Court reasoned that since the photographs were mere representations of what was already in evidence, their introduction could not be held to have injured the accused. Smith, 182 Md. at 187, 32 A.2d at 867.

Moreover, all photographic evidence is in some sense cumulative. The very purpose of photographic evidence is

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to clarify and communicate facts to the tribunal more accurately than by mere words. Pearson v. State, 182 Md. 1, 8-9, 31 A.2d 624, 627 (1943). When such evidence is offered, it is for the trial judge, in his discretion, to determine if the pictures are probative and admissible.

The admitted photographs satisfy this test.


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