Johnson v. State

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Docket NumberNo. 0025,0025
Decision Date03 June 2021


No. 0025


September Term, 2020
June 3, 2021

Circuit Court for Charles County
Case No.


Reed, Wells, Zic, JJ.

Opinion by Wells, J.

*This is an unreported opinion, and it may not be cited in any paper, brief, motion, or other document filed in this Court or any other Maryland Court as either precedent within the rule of stare decisis or as persuasive authority. Md. Rule 1-104.

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After a four-day trial, a jury empaneled in the Circuit Court for Charles County convicted appellant Melvin Johnson of first-degree assault and reckless endangerment of Agnes Reed, second-degree assault on Kelvin Dickens, reckless endangerment of Ralph Sargant, second-degree assault and reckless endangerment of George Toye, home invasion, attempted arson, violation of a peace order, and malicious destruction of property valued at less than $1,000. The court sentenced Mr. Johnson to a total sentence of fifty-five years' incarceration, suspending all but twenty years, plus a period of probation.

Mr. Johnson filed a timely appeal and poses two questions which we have rephrased:1

1. If preserved, did the trial court properly exercise its discretion in the conduct of George Toye's examination?

2. Did the trial court properly overrule Mr. Johnson's hearsay objection to Kelvin Dickerson's testimony regarding an out-of-court question he had previously posed to Mr. Johnson?

Finding no error in either instance, we affirm.

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The Bottom is a juke joint located in Mason Springs.2 Late on the night of June 30, 2018, Agnes Reed, Kelvin ("Mike") Dickens, Ralph Sargant, and George Toye went there for a couple of hours to socialize. Sometime after midnight, the four returned to Ms. Reed's house. Ms. Reed and Mr. Dickens retired to her bedroom, while Messrs. Toye and Sargant went to a different room.

Ms. Reed testified that a barking dog awakened her. She got up and went to the kitchen where she heard someone knocking at her kitchen door. The door's glass panes were inexplicably blocked by a washer and dryer so she could not easily see who was outside. Whoever was outside asked Ms. Reed if they could use a phone because their car had broken down. She went to get Mr. Dickens, who upon arriving at the kitchen, quickly realized that "Melvin" (Johnson) was outside. Mr. Dickens told Ms. Reed not to let him in. Just then, Mr. Johnson used a porch chair to shatter a glass patio door and got inside the house.

Once inside, Ms. Reed said that Mr. Johnson threw gasoline "all in [her] face." Her eyes burning, Ms. Reed could see that Mr. Johnson was "spreading gas all through the house." After he got to the last bedroom—Mr. Sargant's—Mr. Johnson tried to set the house on fire, but only succeeded in burning the carpet. Mr. Dickens accosted Mr. Johnson

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in the hallway and they began to fight. Mr. Johnson ran out of the house, lit another container of gasoline aflame and threw it at Ms. Reed, but missed her. Mr. Toye stopped Mr. Johnson before he could leave, and they began to fight. Ms. Reed intervened; Mr. Johnson ran to his van and drove away. Someone called the police and the fire department. Ms. Reed called it "a terrible, terrible night."

As it happens, Ms. Reed had a relationship with Mr. Johnson. Whether it was an intimate one or not depended on who was asked. Based on her cross-examination of Ms. Reed, the defense counsel believed that it was. Ms. Reed was adamant that it was not. Indeed, Ms. Reed testified that Mr. Johnson was so far out of her good graces that about two weeks before the incident she obtained a peace order against him. So, on the early morning of July 1, 2018, he was not supposed to be anywhere near her or her house. Cross-examination revealed, however, that despite the "no contact" provision in the peace order, Ms. Reed and Mr. Johnson still saw each other occasionally. This fact had prompted Mike Dickens, while the parties were at either the Bottom or Ford's Wonder Bar, and mere hours before the incident, to demand that Mr. Johnson stop "seeing" Ms. Reed.

The other occupants of the house that night all testified to the same version of events as Ms. Reed. To be sure, each witnesses' testimony varied and there were occasional lapses in memory, but each person consistently related the same essential facts. For example, Mr. Toye said that he and Mr. Sargant were watching television in the latter's room when he heard a dog barking and assumed someone was outside the house. His suspicion was confirmed when he heard "a ramming noise" coming from outside the house. He left the bedroom and saw Mr. Johnson "trying to break the window." "When he busted the

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window, he . . . he was . . . he had gas. And . . . and was trying to light, it seemed like to light the you, know, light a match to burn the house down." According to Mr. Toye, he and Mr. Dickens began fighting with Mr. Johnson, who was swinging a lamp like a club. Mr. Toye struck Mr. Johnson on the head with a bottle. Mr. Johnson retreated outside of the house, threw something at Ms. Reed, and then fled. Mr. Toye's testimony and his conduct during examination will be discussed in detail later in this opinion.

The law enforcement officers who responded to the scene, Cody Garner, Renee Cyler, Cornelius Harris, Kenneth Kleiza, and Raymond Brooks, all testified that when they arrived, Ms. Reed's person and her house reeked of the odor of gasoline, that her patio door was smashed, there were blood droplets in various places throughout the house, and there were burned areas of carpeting. Officer Garner testified that he also found a "smoldering" rag fused into a burned area of a hall carpet. There was, surreally, also a small fire burning in Ms. Reed's driveway. The police took numerous photographs documenting the scene, all of which were entered into evidence. Genetic evidence was also gathered, chiefly from blood on the glass shards of the smashed patio door and blood left on the bludgeon-lamp. These samples were later compared with Mr. Johnson's genetic material and were found to be a match.

The defense declined to present any evidence at trial. The jury convicted Mr. Johnson of the crimes previously mentioned. The court sentenced Johnson to a total sentence of fifty-five years' incarceration, suspending all but twenty years. He filed this timely appeal. Additional facts will be discussed in the following sections of this opinion.

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A. The Parties' Contentions

Mr. Johnson insists that over the course of Mr. Toye's testimony, the circuit court erred in three distinct but related ways. First, Mr. Johnson asserts the trial court abused its discretion under Rule 5-601 for "failing to sufficiently inquire into Mr. Toye's competence to testify, or to make a finding on that issue, despite observing Mr. Toye struggling to answer questions properly, suspecting that he may have been intoxicated, and learning of defense counsel's personal knowledge of Mr. Toye's history of intoxication in court." Mr. Johnson acknowledges that the court "inquired into whether Mr. Toye was intoxicated," but claims that "it never resolved the question of his competency[.]" Mr. Johnson claims that a substantial question regarding Toye's competency was raised based on his conduct, claiming that he could not "observe, recollect, and recount pertinent facts" and that he "failed to 'demonstrate an understanding of the duty to tell the truth.'" Because a substantial question was raised, according to Mr. Johnson, he believes that the court failed to meet its consequential requirement to conduct an inquiry to "satisfy the [c]ourt that the witness [wa]s competent to testify."

Second, Mr. Johnson argues that the trial court failed to "properly control" Mr. Toye's conduct while testifying. Mr. Johnson aims this argument at Mr. Toye's testimony overall, but specifically points us to the following statements by Mr. Toye with which Mr. Johnson takes issue:

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• (1) "Well, I could sit here and answer no questions, and what can you do? I don't have to say anything, you know what I'm saying?";

• (2) "I just don't like to answer--" before being interrupted by the State's objection;

• (3) "I just don't like to see . . . my thing is, I don't like to see this happen, and I don't like to see nobody, you know, 'cause I don't know anything about this fella. That hurts me real ba[d], you know, to talk of this."

Mr. Johnson believes that he was seriously prejudiced by Mr. Toye's behavior in stating these responses because "Mr. Toye was an important witness" who "was one of the only witnesses who testified to actually seeing Mr. Johnson set something on fire." As support, Mr. Johnson points us to the Court of Appeals' Marshall v. State, 291 Md. 205, 213 (1981) opinion, which he cites to mean that "intervention can be necessary to maintain the integrity of court proceedings and defendants' rights to a fair trial."

Third, Mr. Johnson argues that the trial court violated his right to confront a witness against him under the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 21 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. Mr. Johnson relies on footnote one of this Court's opinion in Cruz v. State, where we noted in dicta "that appellant was free to question the victim about the degree of drug influence . . . and to argue to the jury that, because the victim had used drugs that morning, her version of the events was unreliable." 232 Md. App. 108, 111 (2017) (citing Lyba v. State, 321 Md. 564, 571 (1991) (explaining that defense counsel could delve into the degree of drug influence on the witness on the day of the alleged crime "so that the jury could decide the credibility of the victim and how much weight to give her testimony")).

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