Pitts v. State

Citation250 Md.App. 496,250 A.3d 410
Decision Date29 April 2021
Docket NumberNo. 0552, Sept. Term, 2020,0552, Sept. Term, 2020
Parties Rodney PITTS v. STATE of Maryland
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

250 Md.App. 496
250 A.3d 410

Rodney PITTS
STATE of Maryland

No. 0552, Sept. Term, 2020

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.

April 29, 2021

Argued by: Andy Cryan (Principal Counsel of Justice Beyond Bars, on the brief), Randallstown, MD, for Appellant.

Argued by: Menelik Coates (Brian E. Frosh, Atty. Gen., on the brief), Baltimore, MD, for Appellee

Panel: Fader, C.J., Ripken, Charles E. Moylan, Jr., Senior Judge, Specially Assigned, JJ.

Moylan, J.

The fields of law involved in this appeal are two-fold, each highly complicated in its own right, and intricately interwoven in the case before us. One of them is Maryland Rule of Procedure 4-345(a), which provides, "The court may correct an illegal sentence at any time." The other is the curious phenomenon of inconsistent jury verdicts. Involved is the interwoven and subtly nuanced issue of which, if any, of the many varieties of verdict inconsistency might produce an "illegal sentence" within the strict contemplation of Rule 4-345(a).

A Long, Long Trail A-Winding

The appellant, Rodney Pitts, was charged with the cold-blooded murders of two sisters, G'Angela Johnson and Trina Johnson, that occurred on December 21, 1995 in Baltimore City. Following a trial that ran from September 23 through October 3, 1997, the jury, presided over by Judge Joseph McCurdy, rendered its verdicts. With respect to each of his two victims the appellant had been charged with the Intent-to-Kill variety of murder. The three other varieties or kinds of murder, 1) Intent-to-Inflict Grievous Bodily Harm Murder, 2) Felony Murder, and 3) Depraved Heart Murder, are not at all involved in this case. With respect to each victim, the appellant was charged with 1) Premeditated Intent-to-Kill Murder in the first degree and 2) Simple Intent-to-Kill Murder in the second degree.1 The second-degree

250 A.3d 413

murder count was, inter alia, a lesser included offense within the first-degree murder count, indistinguishable from the greater inclusive offense except that it lacked the aggravating element of premeditation.

As it rendered its verdicts, victim by victim and count by count, the jury found the appellant guilty of murder in the first degree with respect to both G'Angela and Trina. It also found the appellant guilty of murder in the second degree as to Trina, but, bizarrely, not guilty of murder in the second degree as to G'Angela.2 This inexplicable incongruity now looms before us 24 years later.3

Judge McCurdy sentenced the appellant to a term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the first-degree murder of G'Angela Johnson. The appellant does not now challenge his conviction or sentence for the first-degree murder of Trina Johnson. In the immediate wake of the sentences, the appellant appealed both convictions to this Court. We affirmed in an unreported opinion filed on December 7, 1998, simply vacating one of two redundant convictions for openly carrying a dangerous weapon. The Court of Appeals denied the appellant's request for a writ of certiorari on March 12, 1999.

The appellant's Motion to Correct an Illegal Sentence was filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City 19 years later on November 4, 2018. A telephonic hearing was held before Judge Pamela J. White on July 2, 2020. In a Memorandum Opinion and Order filed on July 7, 2020, Judge White denied the motion and this appeal followed.

Two Contentions

On this appeal, the appellant raises two contentions. In the appellant's express terms, they are:



What Is An Inherently Illegal Sentence?

The appellant claimed that his sentence for the first-degree murder conviction

250 A.3d 414

of G'Angela Johnson was an "illegal sentence." The appreciation of what is an "illegal sentence" within the strictly limited coverage of Rule 4-345(a) is an appropriate place to begin our analysis. In Carlini v. State, 215 Md. App. 415, 419-20, 81 A.3d 560 (2013), this Court examined that nuanced definition:

What is an illegal sentence? That all depends upon what one means by "an illegal sentence." There are countless illegal sentences in the simple sense. They are sentences that may readily be reversed, vacated, corrected or modified on direct appeal, or even on limited post-conviction review, for a wide variety of procedural glitches and missteps in the sentencing process. Challenges to such venial illegalities, however, are vulnerable to such common pleading infirmities as non-preservation and limitations. There is a point, after all, beyond which we decline to revisit modest infractions. There are, by contrast, illegal sentences in the pluperfect sense. Such illegal sentences are subject to open-ended collateral review. Although both phenomena may casually be referred to as illegal sentences, there is a critically dispositive difference between a procedurally illegal sentencing process and an inherently illegal sentence itself. It is only the latter that is grist for the mill of Maryland Rule 4-345(a).

(Emphasis supplied.)

Rule 4-345(a) focuses narrowly on the sentence itself. It is not a broadscale review of the antecedent trial procedure culminating in the sentence. The evolving caselaw has drawn a dispositive distinction between illegal sentences in the sense that the antecedent procedure was somehow legally flawed, which are not cognizable under Rule 4-345(a), and illegal sentences in the more limited cases where the illegality is inherent in the sentence itself, which are cognizable. The Court of Appeals, in Tshiwala v. State, 424 Md. 612, 619, 37 A.3d 308 (2012), was emphatic that some illegal sentences are not covered by Rule 4-345(a) :

Where the sentence imposed is not inherently illegal, and where the matter complained of is a procedural error, the complaint does not concern an illegal sentence for purposes of Rule 4-345(a). A sentence does not become an illegal sentence because of some arguable procedural flaw in the sentencing procedure.

(Emphasis supplied.) See also Johnson v. State, 427 Md. 356, 367, 47 A.3d 1002 (2012) ("The scope of this privilege...is narrow. To constitute an illegal sentence under Rule 4-345(a), the illegality must inhere in the sentence itself, rather than stem from trial court error during the sentencing proceeding. Accordingly, we have denied relief pursuant to Rule 4-345(a) because the sentences imposed were not inherently illegal, despite some form of error or alleged injustice.").

This Court examined the same distinction in Matthews v. State, 197 Md. App. 365, 375, 13 A.3d 834 (2011), rev'd on other grounds, 424 Md. 503, 36 A.3d 499 (2012) :

Emerging from a survey of a quarter of a century of Maryland caselaw is the overarching principle that the values of finality and closure still abide, Rule 4-345(a) has been consistently interpreted to be a narrow window that permits a trial judge to correct at any time a sentence that is obviously and facially illegal in the sense that it is a sentence that the court had never been statutorily authorized to impose. It is not, on the other hand, some unlimited "Reopen, Sesame," licensing the court to revisit and to relitigate issues that have long since become faits accompli.
250 A.3d 415

(Emphasis supplied.) See also Ray v. State, 230 Md. App. 157, 162-63, 146 A.3d 1157 (2016).

As this Court warned in Ray v. State, 230 Md. App. at 167, 146 A.3d 1157, "To recite that for Rule 4-345(a) applicability, the illegality must inhere in the sentence itself is one thing. Instinctively to be able to identify such a phenomenon is something else again." An obvious example of an inherently illegal sentence is a sentence that exceeds the sentencing cap. (An 11-year sentence for a crime carrying a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years). A recent prolific expansion of this type of inherent illegality are sentences exceeding a sentencing cap imposed not by statute but by a negotiated plea bargain. Cuffley v. State, 416 Md. 568, 7 A.3d 557 (2010). Another type of inherently illegal sentence is one where the sanction imposed is one that has not been authorized by statute, such as restitution, Walczak v. State, 302 Md. 422, 488 A.2d 949 (1985) or home detention, Holmes v. State, 362 Md. 190, 763 A.2d 737 (2000).

Another type of inherent illegality and the one pertinent to the case before us is a sentence that is illegal because it was imposed in a case where no sentence should have been imposed in the first place. Alston v. State, 425 Md. 326, 339, 40 A.3d 1028 (2012), spoke of this type of inherently illegal sentence:

There is one type of illegal sentence which this Court has consistently held should be corrected under Rule 4-345(a). Where the trial court imposes a sentence or other sanction upon a criminal defendant, and where no sentence or sanction should have been imposed,

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