Jones v. State, No. 1988

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtOpinion by Fader, J.
Decision Date08 August 2018
Docket NumberNo. 1988


No. 1988


September Term, 2016
August 8, 2018

Circuit Court for Baltimore County
Case No. 03-K-15-005488


Friedman, Fader, Kenney, James A., III (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Opinion by Fader, 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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A longstanding rule of law prohibits conviction of a criminal defendant based on accomplice testimony—no matter how overwhelming that testimony may be—in the absence of independent corroboration that tends to either (1) implicate the defendant in the crime or (2) identify the defendant with the perpetrators of the crime at or near the time it was committed. A Baltimore County jury convicted appellant Hassan Jones of conspiracy to commit an armed carjacking that led to a brutal murder. However, the evidence against Mr. Jones all came from or through his alleged accomplices. Based on controlling precedent, we must therefore reverse his conviction.


A Body Is Discovered

Early on an August morning in 2015, a neighbor discovered Sandeep Bhulai's dead body lying next to his car in Middle River. Mr. Bhulai had been shot six times, including in the head, neck, left elbow, left arm (twice), and chest. In the grass near the body, police found 9-millimeter and .380 caliber spent shell casings. Police also found a moped, which they later linked to the crime, in a nearby alley.

Through their investigation, the police identified six different individuals as suspects in the crime: Keith Harrison, Kareem Riley, Ramart Wilson, Christian Tyson, Michael Jobes, and Mr. Jones. The police found physical evidence implicating all but Mr. Jones. Messrs. Harrison, Riley, Wilson, and Tyson all left fingerprints on either the moped or Mr. Bhulai's vehicle. The police found Mr. Harrison in possession of the .380 caliber handgun that had fired the shell casings found near Mr. Bhulai's body and they found Mr.

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Bhulai's cell phone in Mr. Jobes's home. Cell site locational data also placed Messrs. Harrison, Jobes, and Wilson in the vicinity of the murder that night.

The Night of the Murder, According to the Accomplices

Messrs. Tyson, Riley, and Wilson all testified at Mr. Jones's trial. All testified pursuant to plea agreements1 and all testified consistently with respect to Mr. Jones's role in the events of that evening. According to all three, Mr. Riley drove the group to a party in Reisterstown and then to an afterparty in Woodlawn. At the afterparty, someone took a photo of the group using Mr. Wilson's cell phone. Mr. Wilson identified all of the men in the picture, including Mr. Jones, by writing one of their names or nicknames beside each of the figures in the picture.

According to the accomplices, following the afterparty, the group decided to steal a vehicle nearby in Middle River. They then parked in a residential area and split up. Messrs. Riley, Wilson, and Harrison attempted to steal a moped. When the moped failed to start, however, they abandoned it in a nearby alley. Mr. Wilson then took Mr. Riley, who was very intoxicated, back to the car, while Mr. Harrison went after the others.

The other members of the group—Messrs. Tyson, Jobes, and Jones, eventually joined by Mr. Harrison—looked for a car to steal. According to Mr. Tyson, who provided

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the only testimony about the murder itself, they found Mr. Bhulai sitting in his car and forced him at gunpoint onto the side of the road. Mr. Tyson took Mr. Bhulai's cell phone and then Messrs. Jobes, Harrison, and Jones all shot Mr. Bhulai. Mr. Jobes took Mr. Bhulai's wallet and they all ran back to Mr. Riley's car.

Mr. Riley, who had fallen asleep in the car, testified that he was awakened by the sound of gunshots. Mr. Wilson, in the car with Mr. Riley, testified that he also heard gunshots approximately ten minutes after the group split up. Both Messrs. Riley and Wilson testified that when the rest of the group returned to the car, Messrs. Harrison, Jobes, and Jones all had guns in their hands.2 According to Mr. Riley, Mr. Jones told him to leave quickly because they had just shot someone.

Mr. Jones's Arrest, Trial, and Conviction

In early September 2015, the police arrested Mr. Jones. During his interrogation, Mr. Jones denied any knowledge of the crime or the other five men, even though his and Mr. Jobes's phone numbers were listed in each other's cell phones. Mr. Jones even initially denied owning a cell phone or having a nickname, although he later admitted to both.

Over a six-day jury trial in August 2016, Mr. Jones was tried on six counts: first degree murder; second degree murder; first degree felony murder; use of a firearm during a crime of violence; conspiracy to commit armed carjacking; and armed robbery. In

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addition to the testimony of Messrs. Tyson, Riley, and Wilson, the State presented the testimony of the lead homicide detective, forensic experts, and the police officers involved in the investigation. The State introduced physical evidence from the crime scene and historical cell phone locational data for the cell phones of four of Mr. Jones's alleged accomplices. All of this information generally corroborated the accomplices' testimony regarding their movements and activities that evening. No locational data was presented for Mr. Jones's phone, however, nor did any other physical evidence corroborate his involvement.

At the close of the State's case, Mr. Jones moved for acquittal on all charges, arguing that the accomplices' testimony was uncorroborated and therefore insufficient. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the photograph taken with Mr. Wilson's phone on the night of the murder could serve as the necessary independent corroboration. The court instructed the jury regarding the corroboration requirement.

The jury convicted Mr. Jones of conspiracy to commit armed carjacking but acquitted him of the other charges. Mr. Jones restated his argument regarding the lack of corroboration of the accomplices' testimony in an unsuccessful motion for a new trial. The trial court sentenced him to 30 years' incarceration.


Mr. Jones contends that the State failed to provide sufficient corroboration of the testimony of his alleged accomplices, which served as the only evidence connecting him to the crime. We review a sufficiency-of-the-evidence claim by determining "whether,

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after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Smith v. State, 415 Md. 174, 184 (2010) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979)). Weighing the evidence, assessing "the credibility of witnesses and resolving conflicts in the evidence are matters entrusted to the sound discretion of the trier of fact." In re Heather B., 369 Md. 257, 270 (2002) (quoting In re Timothy F., 343 Md. 371, 379 (1996)). Accordingly, both the evidence and all reasonable inferences from that evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the State. Smith, 415 Md. at 185-86.


"The longstanding law in Maryland is that a conviction may not rest on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice." In re Anthony W., 388 Md. 251, 264 (2005) (quoting Williams v. State, 364 Md. 160, 179 (2001)); Boggs v. State, 228 Md. 168, 170 (1962) ("It is unquestionably true that a person accused of crime may not be convicted in this State on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice."). Maryland courts "have steadfastly adhered to [this] rule" since its adoption in 1911. Woods v. State, 315 Md. 591, 616 (1989). The theory behind the rule is that an accomplice is "contaminated with guilt," and his or her testimony "should be regarded with great suspicion and caution[;] . . . otherwise the life or liberty of an innocent person might be taken away by a witness who makes the accusation either to gratify his [or her] malice or to shield himself [or herself] from punishment, or in the hope of receiving clemency" for his or her own involvement in the crime. Ayers v. State, 335 Md. 602, 637-38 (1995) (quoting Watson v. State, 208 Md.

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210, 217 (1955), abrogated in part on other grounds by State v. Hawkins, 326 Md. 270, 284-85 (1992)). Without this rule, it is feared that an accomplice may "point the finger of guilt at one who, for the lack of an alibi or witness, may find himself unlawfully incarcerated. Such would offend our whole system of justice." Turner v. State, 294 Md. 640, 642 (1982) (quoting State v. Foust, 588 P.2d 170, 173 (Utah 1978)). A necessary but unstated premise of this rule is that, in the absence of at least some corroboration, jurors will be incapable of determining reliably the veracity of the accomplice testimony.

Notwithstanding this concern, "only slight corroboration is required" to send a case that is otherwise wholly reliant on accomplice testimony to a jury. Ayers, 335 Md. at 638; see also Boggs, 228 Md. at 171 ("[I]t is well settled that not much in the way of corroboration of the testimony of an accomplice is required. It is not necessary that the corroborating testimony be of itself sufficient to convict the accused . . . ."). That slight corroboration, however, must apply to one of two categories of evidence; it "must relate to material facts tending either (1) to identify the accused with the perpetrators of the crime or (2) to show the participation of the accused in the crime itself." Collins v. State, 318 Md. 269, 280 (1990) (quoting Brown v. State, 281 Md. 241, 244 (1977)) (emphasis omitted). "If with some degree of cogency the corroborative evidence tends to establish either of these matters, the trier of fact may...

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