Simpson v. State, No. 22, Sept. Term, 2014.

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtBARBERA, C.J.
Citation442 Md. 446,112 A.3d 941
Decision Date07 April 2015
Docket NumberNo. 22, Sept. Term, 2014.
PartiesWilliam Siam SIMPSON, III v. STATE of Maryland.

442 Md. 446
112 A.3d 941

William Siam SIMPSON, III
STATE of Maryland.

No. 22, Sept. Term, 2014.

Court of Appeals of Maryland.

April 7, 2015.

112 A.3d 942

John Christopher Belcher (Oxon Hill, MD), on brief, for Petitioner.

Ryan R. Dietrich, Asst. Atty. Gen. (Douglas F. Gansler, Atty. Gen. of Maryland, Baltimore, MD), on brief, for Respondent.




442 Md. 448

It is well understood that the federal and Maryland constitutions prohibit the prosecutor in a criminal case from making an adverse comment upon the defendant's failure to testify. Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609, 85 S.Ct. 1229, 14 L.Ed.2d 106 (1965) (holding that the prosecutor's comment during closing argument concerning the defendant's failure to testify violated the Self–Incrimination Clause of the Fifth Amendment); Smith v. State, 367 Md. 348, 358, 787 A.2d 152 (2001) (holding that the prosecutor's comment during closing argument violated Article 22 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights); see also Md.Code (2013 Repl.Vol.) § 9–107 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article.1 The question we answer in the present case is whether the remarks the prosecutor made—not during closing argument, but rather in opening statement—ran afoul of that prohibition. We hold that,

442 Md. 449

under the facts of this case, the answer is yes, thereby entitling Petitioner, William Siam Simpson, III, to a new trial.


Petitioner was charged in a multi-count indictment with crimes in connection with three incidents that occurred at the house where Petitioner's former girlfriend, Jasmine Byers, and her family resided. All three incidents occurred at night. The first incident involved the intentional burning of the detached garage on the property; the second involved the intentional burning of the roof of the house; and the third involved an attempt to set fire to an automobile parked on the driveway. Mrs. Byers witnessed part of the third episode and began screaming at the culprit, who then fled the scene. The family contacted the police. Upon arrival, the police reviewed with members of the family a video-recording of the incident, which had been captured by a surveillance camera the Byers had installed after the previous fires. The family informed the police that they recognized the masked individual, by reference to his walk, body frame, and posture, to be Jasmine's former boyfriend, Petitioner.

112 A.3d 943

The police went to Petitioner's home, where Joy, an accelerant-detecting dog, scanned the outside of a car parked there. Joy alerted to the presence of an accelerant on the driver's side door handle and the trunk. The police then went to the house and, upon knocking, were allowed by Petitioner to enter. The police smelled gasoline as they entered the house, and one of the officers placed Petitioner under arrest. Petitioner consented to a search of the interior of the car and the house. Joy detected additional accelerant inside the trunk and passenger area of the car. During the search of the house, the police seized from Petitioner's bedroom a pair of tennis shoes. Subsequent testing of the shoes disclosed the presence of gasoline.

Petitioner was transported to the police station, where he

442 Md. 450

was advised of and waived his Miranda rights.2 Left alone with pen and paper, Petitioner wrote, without assistance or involvement of the police, the following statement:

I William Siam Simpson III burned the garage down of the byers house. I set the fire inside the garage. I ran away and let the fire burned. I just poured gasoline all over the garage and let it burn. The second attempt was the roof that I set on fire. I just climbed up the tree pour gasoline and just left. Let the house burned. My third attempt was tonight. I wore a mask, gloves, leather jacket, poured gasoline all over the nissan altima and tried to burn it. I'm crazy and I need help. I have anger management issues I cannot control myself. Put me in the chair for lethal injection. I'm ashamed of what I become I failed my family, friends, and myself. God help me!

Petitioner signed the statement confirming that it was “true and correct to the best of my knowledge.”

Thereafter, a detective conducted an interview, took notes of his questions and Petitioner's responses, and then had Petitioner review and sign each response at the end of the interview to verify that the written version was fair and accurate. As we shall see, the State introduced into evidence both Petitioner's handwritten confession and the confession produced during the detective's interview of Petitioner.

Petitioner was charged in a ten-count indictment and tried in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County. The first trial resulted in an acquittal of one of those counts and a mistrial on the remaining nine counts.

On retrial of the remaining counts, the prosecutor included the following in her opening statement to the jury:

On November the 15th, 2009, the Defendant came onto the Byers' property, came to their home, and set their detached garage on fire. It burned down to the ground,
442 Md. 451
along with all of their personal and sentimental property inside.
And on April the 4th, 2010, the Defendant came back to the Byers' home and set the roof of their home on fire. There were four family members home at the time. They woke up in the middle of the night, or in the early morning hours, to a smoke-filled house and flames.
On May the 16th, 2010, yet again, the Defendant returned back to the Byers' home, and while on video surveillance poured gasoline on Mrs. Byers' car and attempted to set it on fire.
Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to tell you up front that this is not a who-done-it case, ... and this is not [a] trial
112 A.3d 944
where the facts of how the crime was committed [are] missing, and this is not a case where motive is a mystery.
Ladies and gentlemen ..., the Defendant himself will tell you, number one, that he burned down that garage

(emphasis added).

Defense counsel objected, and the court overruled the objection, without comment. The State continued:

—he committed those crimes of arson. And further, he'll tell you why he did it.
But even with the Defendant's own words, the State—I will bring members of the Prince George's County's Fire Marshal's office, and members of the Prince George's County Police Department, here to testify before you.
And they're going to sit right there in that jury box and they're going to corroborate everything that the Defendant has said....

* * *

[A]t the end of this trial I'm going to ask you to listen to what the Defendant has said, to listen to how his words are corroborated....

(Emphasis added). Before making his opening statement, defense counsel informed the court that he intended to make an “additional motion” either before or after opening statement.

442 Md. 452

The court asked counsel to proceed directly to opening statement. As he did, defense counsel stated, in relevant part:

Based on the State's opening statement some of you may be wondering why are we even here.
Based on her suggestion that my client is going to state—to stand up in front of you and admit to all of the offenses, you're saying, wait a minute, that doesn't make sense, something doesn't make sense here; if he's guilty, why don't, you know, you say he's guilty and let us all go about our business.
Well, there's something that was not entirely clear from the State's opening statement, because what she's referring to is a so-called confession that my client gave.
But if you've listened to that presentation where she said it's not a who-done-it case, we know he did it, he admitted everything; then forget it, forget about asking any questions, forget about your oath to listen to the evidence before you render a decision—because then something's gone terribly wrong, because my client, William Siam Simpson, III, sits here before you with the presumption of innocence, and it is the State's job to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he's guilty.

* * *

Let's talk about this so-called confession which the State—and I believe they even used the word. They acted like he's going to come up here and testify in front of you, as if he did all of these things.

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