State v. Albrecht

Citation336 Md. 475,649 A.2d 336
Decision Date01 September 1993
Docket NumberNo. 152,152
PartiesSTATE of Maryland v. Christopher J. ALBRECHT. ,
CourtCourt of Appeals of Maryland

Mary Ellen Barbera, Asst. Atty. Gen. (J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Atty. Gen., Tarra DeShields-Minnis, Asst. Atty. Gen., all on brief), Baltimore, for petitioner.

Byron L. Warnken, Warnken & Warnken, Baltimore (Gary L. Crawford, Clarke, Crawford, & Bonifant, Gaithersburg, Roger W. Galvin, Rockville, all on brief), for respondent.


RAKER, Judge.

Petitioner Christopher J. Albrecht was found guilty of one count of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of reckless endangerment following a bench trial before Judge Peter J. Messitte in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. Albrecht appealed, contending that the evidence presented to the trial court was legally insufficient to sustain those convictions. The Court of Special Appeals agreed with Albrecht's contention and reversed. Albrecht v. State, 97 Md.App. 630, 632 A.2d 163 (1993). We granted the State's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the judgment of the intermediate appellate court. Upon our review of the record evidence, we conclude that sufficient evidence was presented at trial to support each of Albrecht's convictions. Accordingly, we shall reverse the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.


At the outset, we emphasize that when an appellate court is called upon to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to sustain a criminal conviction, it is not the function or duty of the appellate court to undertake a review of the record that would amount to, in essence, a retrial of the case. Rather, we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 2789, 61 L.Ed.2d 560, 573 (1979); Branch v. State, 305 Md. 177, 182-83, 502 A.2d 496, 498 (1986), giving due regard to the trial court's finding of facts, its resolution of conflicting evidence, and, significantly, its opportunity to observe and assess the credibility of witnesses. See, e.g., State v. Raines, 326 Md. 582, 589, 606 A.2d 265, 268 (1992); Maryland Rule 8-131(c). 1 Fundamentally, our concern is not with whether the trial court's verdict is in accord with what appears to us to be the weight of the evidence, see Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319, 99 S.Ct. at 2789, 61 L.Ed.2d at 573; Allison v. State, 203 Md. 1 5, 98 A.2d 273, 275 (1953), but rather is only with whether the verdicts were supported with sufficient evidence--that is, evidence that either showed directly, or circumstantially, or supported a rational inference of facts which could fairly convince a trier of fact of the defendant's guilt of the offenses charged beyond a reasonable doubt.

In other words, when a sufficiency challenge is made, the reviewing court is not to "ask itself whether it believes that the evidence at the trial established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt"; rather, the duty of the appellate court is only to determine "whether, 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." Jackson, 443 U.S. at 318-19, 99 S.Ct. at 2789, 61 L.Ed.2d at 573 (emphasis in original); see also Oken v. State, 327 Md. 628, 661, 612 A.2d 258, 274 (1992); Raines, 326 Md. at 588-89, 606 A.2d at 268.


The basic facts of this case are undisputed. On the afternoon of May 23, 1991, Montgomery County Police Officers Christopher Albrecht and Marvin Thomas were dispatched to Fairhaven Drive in Gaithersburg, Maryland, to investigate a reported stabbing. Upon arriving at the scene, the officers were informed that a fight had broken out between Timothy Fair and three young men and that Fair had been stabbed in the back with a broken bottle by Darnell Budd, whom Albrecht knew by name. Witnesses at the scene also told the officers that the three men involved in the fight were known to be drug dealers and that the three might have been involved in a robbery. The officers were told that Budd had left the Fairhaven Drive area in a green Chevrolet driven by Rebecca Garnett. One witness warned the officers that there might be a gun in the Chevrolet, although no one at the scene reported seeing any of the individuals involved with a gun.

While the officers were still at the scene, a witness saw the green Chevrolet pass by and shouted "There goes the car." Albrecht saw three people in the car as it passed: a female, who was driving, and two black male passengers. Thomas and Albrecht both got into their cruisers and set off in pursuit. Although the officers initially lost sight of the Chevrolet, after a brief search of the surrounding neighborhood Albrecht spotted the car in a parking lot at Larchmont Terrace, a townhouse complex in Montgomery County. The car was parked perpendicular to the curb with the front end facing the street. The driver, Rebecca Garnett, and one of the male passengers, whom Albrecht recognized as Darnell Budd, had exited the car and were standing in the parking lot. The other male passenger, James Littlejohn, remained in the back seat of the car. The car was parked directly in front of a neighborhood playground. The documentary evidence presented at trial showed that Garnett stood no more than six feet from the sidewalk that ran in front of the playground area. In photographs from the scene, some playground equipment, including a slide, is visible directly behind the spot where Rebecca Garnett stood. A swingset is visible to the rear and the right of where Garnett stood. Both the slide and swingset appear to be set approximately ten to fifteen feet behind the sidewalk. At the time that Albrecht spotted the Chevrolet--which was approximately 7 p.m.--it was still daylight and there were several children and adults both in the playground area, on the sidewalk running behind the Chevrolet and in front of the playground, and on the surrounding street.

Albrecht brought his police cruiser to a stop in front of and to the right of the driver's door of the Chevrolet. At that time, Garnett was standing next to the closed driver's side door, holding a bag of Fritos in one hand. Her other hand was empty. Budd stood by the passenger side door. Littlejohn, still in the car, appeared to be either sitting on the back seat or kneeling down on the floorboards of the car's rear passenger compartment. As Albrecht was parking his cruiser, he saw Garnett and Budd exchange words and begin to move towards the Chevrolet, appearing to him as if they were going to try to leave the scene. Exiting his cruiser, Albrecht yelled, "Stop! Freeze!" and, at the same time, removed his shotgun from its rack inside his vehicle. Witnesses at the scene reported also hearing a command to "Put your hands in the air." Albrecht, standing behind the open door of his cruiser, then immediately placed a shotgun shell in the chamber of the shotgun and "racked" 2 the shotgun into its final stage of firing capability. He then leveled his shotgun at Garnett, who stood approximately thirty-seven feet away from him. Witnesses at the scene testified that Albrecht, looking down the barrel of the gun, aimed his shotgun directly at Garnett.

Officer Thomas arrived at Larchmont Terrace a matter of seconds after Albrecht. Thomas moved his police cruiser into a position in front of and to the left of the Chevrolet. The manner in which Albrecht and Thomas parked their cruisers was in accordance with standard police procedure by which officers use their vehicles for cover while attempting to effectuate an arrest. When Thomas first exited his cruiser, he did not remove his shotgun from its rack inside his vehicle. Upon hearing the racking of Albrecht's shotgun, however, Thomas reached back into his cruiser and removed his own. Both Thomas and Albrecht were using Remington Wingmaster Model 870 shotguns, the standard model shotgun issued to Montgomery County police officers. As manufactured, the shotgun holds four rounds of ammunition. Albrecht, however, had customized his weapon by fitting it with a bandolier, or sling, that held fifteen extra rounds of ammunition and added 2.39 pounds to the weight of his weapon.

Albrecht testified that he kept his shotgun pointed at Garnett until he decided that she did not pose any danger to him or to any other person. After "checking off" Garnett as a threat, Albrecht testified that he intended to swing the shotgun to the left in order to bring it to bear on Littlejohn and Budd. The shotgun, however, discharged and struck Garnett in the chest. Garnett died almost immediately. Witnesses at the scene testified that Albrecht was steadily holding the shotgun and directly aiming it at Garnett at the time that the weapon discharged.

Although Albrecht saw Garnett sink to the ground after his gun had fired, he testified that he thought that she was simply sitting down so as to comply with his orders to "stop" and "freeze" and that he did not realize that she had been shot. Shouting "I told you not to move," Albrecht immediately racked a second round into the shotgun's chamber as a result, Albrecht testified, of "realizing my gun went off." He and Thomas then approached the Chevrolet and placed Budd and Littlejohn under arrest. After Budd and Littlejohn had been arrested, Albrecht turned his attention to Garnett. Several witnesses at the scene testified that approximately ten minutes had elapsed since the shotgun had discharged before Albrecht approached Garnett. Witnesses at the scene also testified that Albrecht first "frisked" Garnett, patting down her pockets in an apparent search, before he attempted, without success, to administer CPR. On July 30, 1991, Albrecht was indicted in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County on one count of manslaughter, one count of recklessly...

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