Merritt v. State, No. 29

CourtCourt of Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtELDRIDGE, J.
Citation367 Md. 17,785 A.2d 756
PartiesChristopher MERRITT, v. STATE of Maryland.
Docket NumberNo. 29
Decision Date05 December 2001

785 A.2d 756
367 Md. 17

Christopher MERRITT,
v.
STATE of Maryland

No. 29, Sept. Term, 2000.

Court of Appeals of Maryland.

December 5, 2001.


785 A.2d 757
Margaret L. Lanier, Assistant Public Defender (Stephen E. Harris, Public Defender, on brief,) Baltimore, for petitioner

Devy Patterson Russell, Assistant Attorney General (J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, on brief,) Baltimore, for respondent.

Argued Before BELL, C.J., and ELDRIDGE, RODOWSKY1, RAKER, WILNER, CATHELL and HARRELL, JJ.

785 A.2d 758
ELDRIDGE, J

The defendant in this criminal case, Christopher Merritt, was convicted by a jury in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City of first degree premeditated murder, first degree felony murder, attempted armed robbery, and use of a handgun in the commission of a felony. Approximately two days after the trial, the State learned that the search warrant for the defendant's home and other documents, not admitted into evidence, were mistakenly sent to the jury room during deliberations. Defense counsel's motion for a new trial, based upon the erroneous submission of the documents, was denied. We issued a writ of certiorari to decide whether Merritt is entitled to a new trial.

I.

The instant case arises from the murder of Brian Owens. The principal witness against the defendant Merritt was Artinus Shands, who claimed that he participated in the crime with Merritt. Shands testified for the State pursuant to a plea agreement. Under the agreement, in exchange for his truthful testimony and his guilty plea, Shands would receive a life sentence for murder, with all but fifty years suspended, and a concurrent sentence of twenty years for use of a handgun in the commission of a felony.

Shands's testimony was as follows. Ronald Laboard, Owens, Merritt, Shands, and several others gathered for a dice game in the outside stairwell of the apartment building at 2404 Winchester Street in Baltimore City. At some point during the game, Owens had won more than a hundred dollars from each of the other players. As a result, according to Shands, Merritt became upset and decided to regain his money. Merritt showed Shands a gesture with his hand suggesting a gun. Merritt and Shands then left the game and walked to the parking lot adjacent to the building. There, Merritt retrieved two handguns from his car. Shands said that Merritt gave Shands a nine millimeter handgun and Merritt took a .380 caliber handgun. As they returned to the game, Merritt approached Owens, who was seated on the steps, and ordered him and the other players to lie down. Merritt pointed his gun at Owens and demanded the return of his money. Shands stated that Owens did not hand over the money, that Merritt's gun "went off," and that Shands and Merritt continued to shoot Owens. Owens fell to the bottom of the stairs, and Merritt, Shands, and Laboard fled in Merritt's car without taking Owens's money.

The police obtained arrest warrants for Merritt, Shands, and Laboard, charging each with the victim's murder. In a taped statement, Merritt stated that he, Shands, Laboard and several others were rolling dice and drinking when two men approached and ordered them to get down. One of the men held a gun to Merritt's head and took the money that was in his hand. When the men demanded money from Owens, he moved and was shot several times. Following the shooting, everyone got up and ran from the scene. Merritt stated that he, Shands, and Laboard left together in Merritt's car.

Shands initially denied any knowledge of the incident. The police played him the portion of Merritt's taped statement in which Merritt said that Shands was present during the shooting. Believing that Merritt had told the police that only Shands shot the victim, Shands told the police that both he and Merritt had been the shooters. At trial, Shands corroborated his taped statement. The State also introduced into evidence letters exchanged between Shands and Merritt after both of them were incarcerated awaiting trial. In those letters, each asked the other to tell

785 A.2d 759
his attorney that they had given false taped statements to the police because their families had been threatened

Ronald Laboard, who is Merritt's cousin, initially told the police that Merritt and Shands shot the victim. Laboard identified Merritt and Shands as the shooters from separate photographic arrays. The State eventually dropped the murder charges against Laboard. At the trial, however, Laboard testified that his initial statement to the police was false. Laboard stated that he was with the others at the dice game but that he left the game after he lost his money. He testified that he was not present when the shooting took place.

The State presented several police witnesses. Officer Eric Isom was the patrol officer who responded to the call that shots had been fired. At the scene, Isom observed dice, a Bacardi rum bottle, and two baggies containing a white, rock-like substance. Kimberly Fowler was the crime lab technician on the scene. She recovered 19 cartridge casings as well as bullets and fragments. She also recovered two liquor bottles and some dice. James Wagster, an expert on firearms, testified that the cartridge casings recovered from the scene were fired from a .380 caliber handgun and a .40 caliber Smith and Wesson handgun. As an explanation for Shands's testimony that a .380 handgun and a nine millimeter handgun were used in the shooting, Wagner testified that a nine millimeter handgun and a .40 caliber handgun look alike.

Two days after Merritt was convicted, the State learned from a juror that defense exhibit 6, which included the application for the search and seizure warrant for Merritt's home, the warrant, the affidavit in support of the warrant, the inventory return, and a copy of Merritt's taped statement to police, were present in the jury room during deliberations. Exhibit 6 had been marked for identification only and had not been admitted into evidence. The courtroom clerk, however, marked "Evid" on the exhibits list next to the line referring to exhibit 6, reflecting her erroneous belief that the exhibit had been admitted into evidence.

Exhibit 6 contained an affidavit setting forth the credentials of Detective Carol Opher. Specifically, the affidavit stated that Opher had been a member of the Baltimore City Police Department for more than seventeen years and that, by executing search and seizure warrants in the past, she had obtained evidence that resulted in the convictions of over one hundred defendants. The affidavit also contained a statement from Detective Opher that, during interviews of witnesses, it was revealed that "one of the persons responsible for the murder of Brian Owens is Chris Merritt." The affidavit disclosed that, while being interviewed, Merritt admitted to owning a .38 caliber handgun which he said could be found in his home. According to the affidavit, Merritt also admitted owning a .380 caliber handgun.

Furthermore, a transcript of Merritt's taped statement to the police was included in exhibit 6. A redacted copy of that statement had been admitted into evidence at trial. In the portions of the statement which had been redacted before being admitted into evidence, but were not redacted in the statement included in exhibit 6, Merritt admitted to selling drugs before the murder and to owning a .38 caliber handgun. Finally, the inventory return contained a listing of the property actually seized from Merritt's residence. The list included a shoe box containing a green leafy substance, plastic baggies, and rolling papers. These items had not been admitted into evidence.

785 A.2d 760
In the motion for a new trial, defense counsel argued that the presence of exhibit 6 in the jury room during deliberations resulted in probable prejudice to Merritt. The trial court denied the defense's motion, stating: "After considering the quantity and quality of the other evidence produced at trial, it cannot be said that the" presence of exhibit 6 "in the jury room probably resulted in prejudice to the defense." The court continued that "the information is harmless in light of the overpowering evidence in this case." The Circuit Court concluded that Merritt "received a fair trial despite the unintentional submission by the courtroom clerk of extraneous material into the jury room during deliberations."

The Court of Special Appeals, in an unreported opinion, affirmed. Merritt filed in this Court a petition for a writ of certiorari which we granted. Merritt v. State, 359 Md. 28, 753 A.2d 1 (2000).

II.

The certiorari petition presented two questions, one relating to the appropriate standard for appellate review in this case and the other relating to the merits of the trial court's denial of the motion for new trial. Merritt argues (petitioner's brief at 11, 16):

"I. Under the circumstances [of this case], the proper standard of appellate review of the denial of a motion for a new trial is error, not abuse of discretion.

* * *

II. The court either erred, or in the alternative, abused its discretion in denying the motion for a new trial, when the motion was based on the fact that prejudicial documentary evidence which was never entered into evidence was erroneously submitted to the jury at the start of its deliberations."

The State, relying on a lengthy Court of Special Appeals' opinion concerning the subject (Isley v. State, 129 Md.App. 611, 743 A.2d 772 (2000)), and on language in older Court of Appeals' opinions, first argues that trial judges' rulings on motions for new trials are always discretionary matters, that a trial judge's exercise of discretion in refusing to grant a new trial is "absolut[ely]" unreviewable on appeal, and that, in fact, "`no appeal lies from the action of the court in overruling a motion for new trial'" (respondent's brief at 7). According to the State, a trial judge's denial of a motion for a new trial is subject to...

To continue reading

Request your trial
90 practice notes
  • Nash v. State, No. 60
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • June 20, 2014
    ...discretion "'is not fixed and immutable'" but "'will expand or contract'" based on the circumstances of the case (quoting Merritt v. State, 367 Md. 17, 30, 785 A.2d 756, 764 (2001))). Regarding the range of a trial judge's discretion in ruling on a mistrial motion, reviewing appellate court......
  • Newman v. State, No. 3002
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • December 11, 2003
    ...to apply a more stringent standard of review than is generally applicable to appeals of motions for a new trial. Citing Merritt v. State, 367 Md. 17, 30-31, 785 A.2d 756 (2001), appellant argues that, in certain circumstances, some denials of a motion for a new trial are reviewed for error ......
  • Nash v. State, No. 60
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • June 20, 2014
    ...“ ‘is not fixed and immutable’ ” but “ ‘will expand or contract’ ” based on the circumstances of the case (quoting Merritt v. State, 367 Md. 17, 30, 785 A.2d 756, 764 (2001))). Regarding the range of a trial judge's discretion in ruling on a mistrial motion, reviewing appellate courts affor......
  • Nero v. State, No. 1431
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • May 7, 2002
    ...The denial of a motion for new trial is normally subject to reversal only when the trial court abuses its discretion. Merritt v. State, 367 Md. 17, 28-31, 785 A.2d 756 (2001). In Merritt, the Court of Appeals [T]he breadth of a trial judge's discretion to grant or deny a new trial is not fi......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
92 cases
  • Nash v. State, No. 60
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • June 20, 2014
    ...not fixed and immutable'" but "'will expand or contract'" based on the circumstances of the case (quoting Merritt v. State, 367 Md. 17, 30, 785 A.2d 756, 764 (2001))). Regarding the range of a trial judge's discretion in ruling on a mistrial motion, reviewing appellate courts......
  • Newman v. State, No. 3002
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • December 11, 2003
    ...to apply a more stringent standard of review than is generally applicable to appeals of motions for a new trial. Citing Merritt v. State, 367 Md. 17, 30-31, 785 A.2d 756 (2001), appellant argues that, in certain circumstances, some denials of a motion for a new trial are reviewed for error ......
  • Nash v. State, No. 60
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • June 20, 2014
    ...“ ‘is not fixed and immutable’ ” but “ ‘will expand or contract’ ” based on the circumstances of the case (quoting Merritt v. State, 367 Md. 17, 30, 785 A.2d 756, 764 (2001))). Regarding the range of a trial judge's discretion in ruling on a mistrial motion, reviewing appellate courts affor......
  • Nero v. State, No. 1431
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • May 7, 2002
    ...The denial of a motion for new trial is normally subject to reversal only when the trial court abuses its discretion. Merritt v. State, 367 Md. 17, 28-31, 785 A.2d 756 (2001). In Merritt, the Court of Appeals [T]he breadth of a trial judge's discretion to grant or deny a new trial is not fi......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT