Lopez v. State

Decision Date29 March 2018
Docket NumberNo. 11, Sept. Term, 2017,11, Sept. Term, 2017
Citation458 Md. 164,181 A.3d 810
Parties Curtis Maurice LOPEZ v. STATE of Maryland
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Argued by Brian L. Zavin, Assistant Public Defender (Paul B. DeWolfe, Public Defender of Maryland, Baltimore, MD), on brief, for Petitioner.

Argued by Mary Ann Ince, Asst. Atty. Gen. (Brian E. Frosh, Atty. Gen. of Maryland, Baltimore, MD) and Russell P. Butler (Victor D. Stone, Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center, Inc., Upper Marlboro, MD), on brief, for Respondents.

Argued before: Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, JJ.

Getty, J.

"The screen is a magic medium. It has such power that it can retain interest as it conveys emotions and moods that no other art form can hope to tackle."
Stanley Kubrick (1970).

Does this "magic medium" by its very nature convey such overpowering emotion to warrant a permanent ban from the courtroom? Does the "magic medium" in the form of a victim impact video with background music constitute "irrelevant information or inflammatory rhetoric" that would "stir strong emotions that might overcome the restraints of reason" of the sentencing judge? These questions underscore the two opposing interests in this appeal: first, a criminal defendant's interest in a fair sentencing proceeding in which the sentencing judge is not diverted from his or her objective role; and second, a victim's interest in conveying the impacts of the defendant's crimes to the sentencing judge. This Court is once again called upon to balance these opposing interests in light of the law. In this instance, this Court must also strike a balance in light of this "magic medium" of technology that has become ever-present in Maryland courtrooms.

In short, we are asked to determine whether victim impact evidence in the form of a video, displaying more than one hundred photographs of the victims, with accompanying music ("the video" or "victim impact video") is impermissible at a sentencing hearing. Specifically, this Court must decide if such victim impact evidence violates any of the following statutory or constitutional provisions: § 11–402 of the Criminal Procedure Article ("CP") of the Maryland Code, which governs victim impact statements; a defendant's Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment; or a defendant's due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

For the reasons that follow, we first conclude that a sentencing judge has discretion to permit any additional form of victim impact evidence outside the constraints of CP § 11–402, governing written victim impact statements, and CP § 11–403, governing victim impact testimony. We also hold that all prepared victim impact evidence, not including victim impact testimony, must be limited to the content prescribed under CP § 11–402(e), listing the subject matters permitted in victim impact statements. This Court further holds that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit a sentencing judge from considering victim impact evidence at a defendant's noncapital sentencing proceeding. Lastly, we hold that the defendant's Fourteenth Amendment due process rights were not violated in this case because the disputed victim impact evidence did not inflame the passions of the sentencing judge more than the facts of the crime. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.


A grand jury in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County indicted the Petitioner, Curtis Maurice Lopez ("Mr. Lopez"), with two counts of first degree murder, one count of kidnapping, one count of child kidnapping, and one count of robbery.1 On January 4, 2013, Mr. Lopez entered an Alford plea2 as to both first degree murder counts, the robbery count, and one merged count of child kidnapping.3 During the plea hearing, the parties presented the court with an agreement that both the State and Mr. Lopez would be free to argue the appropriate sentence at a separate hearing. The State reminded the court that it intended to request a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. After accepting the agreement as to sentencing, the circuit court questioned Mr. Lopez about his rights, his understanding of the elements of the charged crimes, and his understanding of the plea. The court found that Mr. Lopez was proceeding by way of an Alford plea freely, voluntarily, and intelligently.

In support of the plea, the State presented the following proffer of facts4 in connection with the murders of Jane McQuain ("Jane") and William McQuain ("William"). Mr. Lopez and Jane were married on April 23, 1988, in a Pennsylvania prison while Mr. Lopez was serving a sentence for attempted murder in a separate case. Though Jane and Mr. Lopez kept in contact and visited occasionally, the two did not live as husband and wife. Jane gave birth to a non-marital son, William, while Mr. Lopez was still serving his sentence in prison. Jane and William lived in Germantown, Maryland, and Jane worked as a receptionist at an accounting firm in Gaithersburg. When he was released from prison, Mr. Lopez moved to North Carolina.

In September 2011, Jane used inherited money from her deceased uncle to purchase a new car and a flat-screen television. After learning of the inheritance, Mr. Lopez contacted Jane and informed her of his plans to visit on September 16, 2011. Mr. Lopez stayed with Jane and William in their condominium on Briarcliff Terrace during his visit. On Friday, September 30, 2011, Jane took William to his friend's residence for a sleepover. That night, Mr. Lopez bludgeoned Jane with a thirty-pound weight and stabbed her multiple times, leaving her body wrapped in blankets in her condominium. On the morning of Saturday, October 1, 2011, Mr. Lopez used Jane's cell phone to text William that he should come downstairs to be picked up from the sleepover. Mr. Lopez drove William from the sleepover to a storage facility, where Mr. Lopez retrieved a baseball bat among other items. After driving William around for four to five hours, making multiple trips to and from the storage facility, Mr. Lopez proceeded to drive to the woods off of Clarksburg Road. Mr. Lopez then killed William by swinging the baseball bat at William's head at least four times, splitting William's skull into thirty-six pieces. Mr. Lopez then discarded William's body slightly off the road. Mr. Lopez drove Jane's new car back to North Carolina with several of Jane's and William's belongings, including the flat-screen television. Based on this sequence of events, the Montgomery County police obtained an arrest warrant for Mr. Lopez. Police located Mr. Lopez at an Econo Lodge in North Carolina, found Jane's new car parked outside of the Econo Lodge, and retrieved Jane's bank card in the hotel room. After the State's proffer, the circuit court concluded that the State had set forth sufficient facts to sustain a guilty finding as to all counts in the plea.

On June 10, 2013, the court held a sentencing hearing, during which Mr. Lopez requested that the court impose concurrent life sentences, concurrent term-of-year sentences, and the possibility of parole. Preliminarily, Mr. Lopez moved to exclude a video with photographs of the two victims set to background music, which the victims' representative, Mr. William McQuain ("Mr. McQuain"), Jane's brother, intended to play at sentencing. Mr. Lopez contended that the video did not constitute permissible victim impact evidence and violated Mr. Lopez's constitutional rights. The defense also argued that another judge should conduct an in camera review of the video to determine whether it should be excluded or redacted. The State countered that the sentencing judge has discretion to allow victim impact evidence, and that all judges are able to rule on evidentiary matters and proceed to consider only the permitted evidence. Counsel for Mr. McQuain argued that the video was completely appropriate for sentencing because it showed the identity and characteristics of the victims. Ultimately, the sentencing judge denied Mr. Lopez's request for another judge to conduct an in camera review as well as his motion to exclude the video. The sentencing judge concluded:

I have discretion to allow whatever I like or whatever is appropriate in this kind of sentencing proceeding. I'm told that it is just pictures, that it is six minutes. This is their one—the victims' family's one opportunity to show me, or anyone else, the extent of the impact upon them. And so I know you don't like it but this is what they would like to do and in some respects it would be cathartic to, for the last time, be able to fully discuss their sister and their nephew. So I'm going to allow the video to be played.

The State summarized the facts of the crime, showed a PowerPoint depicting pictures of the crime scenes, submitted written victim impact statements, and presented nine witnesses who gave victim impact testimony. Mr. McQuain, the victims' representative, testified about his sister, Jane, and his nephew, William, as well as the struggles he faces as a result of the death of his family members. At the end of his testimony, Mr. McQuain requested that he be able to play the video of photographs of the two victims. The video begins with the title, "The Story of Jane and William," which appears on the screen while church bells are playing in the background. The video footage then displays childhood photographs of Jane set to the song "Sort of (Instrumental)" by Ingrid Michaelson, which is fittingly characterized as instrumental music. As the song slows down, photographs of Jane during her adult life are shown while the angle zooms in on Jane's image. After approximately one minute, the video displays photographs of Jane holding William as a baby while the instrumental music continues. The video then depicts two-and-one-half minutes of photographs of Jane and William spending time together as well as photos of William engaging in childhood activities,...

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32 cases
  • State v. Williams
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • 31 Agosto 2022
    ...boundless discretion" that sentencing judges are normally afforded when "devising an appropriate sentence." Lopez v. State , 458 Md. 164, 180, 181 A.3d 810 (2018) (quoting Cruz-Quintanilla v. State , 455 Md. 35, 40, 165 A.3d 517 (2017) ). The invariable inclusion of these mandatory words an......
  • In re J.H.
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • 29 Abril 2020
    ...of Review We review a trial judge’s determination on the admissibility of certain evidence for abuse of discretion. Lopez v. State , 458 Md. 164, 180, 181 A.3d 810 (2018) (citing Gordon v. State , 431 Md. 527, 533, 66 A.3d 647 (2013) ). In reference to hearsay, a trial court is prohibited f......
  • Simms v. Md. Dep't of Health
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    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • 27 Febrero 2019
    ...citations or made un-bracketed changes to capitalization) without altering the substance of the quotation." Lopez v. State , 458 Md. 164, 195 n.13, 181 A.3d 810 (2018). ...
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