State v. Elzey, 3, Sept. Term, 2020

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Citation244 A.3d 1068,472 Md. 84
Docket NumberNo. 3, Sept. Term, 2020,3, Sept. Term, 2020
Parties STATE of Maryland v. Latoya Bonte ELZEY
Decision Date29 January 2021

472 Md. 84
244 A.3d 1068

STATE of Maryland
Latoya Bonte ELZEY

No. 3, Sept. Term, 2020

Court of Appeals of Maryland.

January 29, 2021

Argued by Carrie J. Williams, Asst. Atty. Gen. (Brian E. Frosh, Atty. Gen. of Maryland, Baltimore, MD), on brief, for Petitioner.

Argued by James W. Kirkpatrick, Assigned Public Defender (Williams & Connolly, LLP, Washington, DC; Paul B. DeWolfe, Public Defender of Maryland, Baltimore, MD), on brief, for Respondent.

Argued before: Barbera, C.J.; McDonald, Hotten, Getty, Booth, Biran and Lynne A. Battaglia (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Biran, J.

472 Md. 92

Latoya Bonte Elzey grabbed a butcher knife during a heated argument with her boyfriend, Migail Hunter. A few minutes later, Hunter fell to the floor with a knife wound to his heart. By the time an ambulance arrived, Hunter was dead.

At her murder trial in the Circuit Court for Wicomico County, Elzey did not dispute that she killed Hunter, but claimed that she did so in self-defense. To support her theory of self-defense, Elzey introduced expert testimony from a psychiatrist concerning Battered Spouse Syndrome (sometimes referred to in this opinion as the "Syndrome"). The expert testified that Elzey suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome at the time of Hunter's killing as a result of her history of abusive relationships, including her relationship with Hunter.

The jury acquitted Elzey of the murder charges, but convicted her of voluntary manslaughter. On appeal, Elzey argued that the trial judge's instruction to the jury concerning Battered Spouse Syndrome was erroneous. The Court of Special Appeals agreed with Elzey, holding that the instruction incorrectly required the jury to make a predicate finding that

472 Md. 93

Hunter repeatedly abused Elzey, before the jury could consider the evidence of past abuse and the expert testimony Elzey had presented. The court also concluded that the instruction gave the jury "mixed messages" about how it should evaluate the evidence of past abuse in relation to the Syndrome and Elzey's claim of self-defense. Because it determined that the erroneous instruction was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, the court ordered a new trial. The State then sought further review in this Court.

For the reasons discussed below, we agree with the Court of Special Appeals and Elzey that the trial court erred in its formulation of the jury instruction on Battered Spouse Syndrome, and that this error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.



A. The Killing of Migail Hunter

In May 2017, Elzey and Hunter had been together for approximately one year. Hunter was six feet, two inches tall and 41 years old. Elzey was 26 years old and five feet, six inches tall.

Elzey and Hunter were homeless in May 2017. Elzey's friend, Shatoria Hope, allowed Elzey and Hunter to stay temporarily in her small apartment in Salisbury,

244 A.3d 1074

Maryland, which Ms. Hope shared with her children. Around midnight on May 21, 2017, after an afternoon and evening of drinking on May 20, Elzey and Hunter began to argue in the living room of Ms. Hope's apartment. Ms. Hope was cooking in the adjoining kitchen at the time, and heard Elzey and Hunter arguing. Hunter was angry about something he had seen on Elzey's phone. After yelling at Hunter to keep his hands off her, Elzey came into the kitchen and grabbed a knife. Ms. Hope persuaded Elzey to put the knife back, and Elzey returned to the living room, where she and Hunter resumed their argument. Elzey tried to explain to Hunter what he had seen on her phone. Ms. Hope then heard a loud slapping

472 Md. 94

sound, followed immediately by Elzey telling Hunter to stop hitting her. Soon after that, Elzey came back into the kitchen. She was crying and yelling that she was tired of Hunter putting his hands on her. Elzey again grabbed a knife. This time, Elzey left the kitchen with the knife – specifically, a large butcher knife – and went back into the living room.

Elzey and Hunter continued arguing for several minutes. Ms. Hope heard Elzey repeatedly yell at Hunter about his putting his hands on her. Ms. Hope also heard Hunter repeatedly say, "go ahead, go ahead and do it," or "do what you got to do." Ms. Hope turned from the stove and looked into the living room. Although she had an obstructed view due to a partial wall that separated the kitchen and living room, Ms. Hope saw Hunter walk up toward Elzey, as he said, "do it, do it, if you're going to stab me." Ms. Hope did not see what then occurred between Elzey and Hunter, but she heard a loud "boom" come from the living room. When Ms. Hope went into the living room to find out what had caused the noise, she saw Hunter on the floor. Ms. Hope asked Elzey what had happened. Elzey told her that Hunter had walked into the knife.

Hunter died a few minutes later as a result of a stab wound that punctured his aorta. The knife also injured one of Hunter's ribs. The wound was one inch long and two inches deep; its path was right to left and upward.

A grand jury in Wicomico County subsequently returned an indictment against Elzey, charging her with murder and related offenses.

B. Trial

1. Evidence Relating to Elzey's Claim of Self-Defense

Elzey's trial began on June 25, 2018. Ms. Hope testified to what she heard and saw, as summarized above. The State also played a videotaped statement that Elzey gave to the Maryland State Police in the early morning hours of May 21, 2017. In that statement, Elzey told the officers that Hunter physically abused her, and that, at one point, Hunter's abuse had led her to seek refuge at a relative's home.

472 Md. 95

Elzey testified in her own defense. She told the jury that she had no vehicle on the night of May 20-21 and nowhere to go. She testified that Hunter had her ID card, Social Security card, food stamp card, and other personal items of hers in his wallet. Elzey claimed that Hunter kept those items because "[h]e was very possessive" and "would not allow me to carry my own items."1

Elzey also testified about physical abuse that Hunter inflicted on her, which she said began within two months of the start of their relationship. According to Elzey, Hunter frequently would choke her or

244 A.3d 1075

would force her to perform oral sex. Elzey testified that Hunter's bouts of rage were often sparked by jealousy involving other men's interest in Elzey. Elzey told the jury that, despite Hunter's abuse, she stayed with Hunter "because I loved him, and I ... believed that he was going to change." Elzey further testified that she and Hunter were not staying with her family members in the area because her relatives "were not accepting the fact that I was with a man that was beating on me."2

Over the State's objection, the trial court allowed Elzey to provide the jurors with details concerning abuse by other intimate partners before her relationship with Hunter.3 Elzey told the jurors about a past boyfriend who punched her in the face on a weekly basis, giving her multiple black eyes. She said she went to the hospital twice for treatment following that boyfriend's assaults. Elzey also testified about another prior relationship in which her then-boyfriend (who was also the

472 Md. 96

father of one of her children) broke her jaw, requiring doctors to wire her mouth shut.

Elzey testified that, during the few days that she and Hunter stayed at Ms. Hope's house, there was a point when Elzey and Hunter were the only adults in the apartment because Ms. Hope was at a hospital. After Ms. Hope's children went to bed, Hunter became angry at Elzey when she would not have sex with him. According to Elzey, Hunter then choked her to the point that she could not breathe.

At midnight on May 21, according to Elzey, Hunter had her phone and was going through it. Hunter saw that a man had pictures of Elzey in the man's Facebook account, which caused Hunter to "go[ ] off." According to Elzey, Hunter "was steady arguing with me, steady yelling at me, steady cussing at me." Elzey said that, as the argument escalated, Hunter was "approaching me in my space," "push[ing] me in my head," and "making me feel threatened for my life."

Elzey told the jury that she grabbed the knife "as a scare away, to keep you away from me, like do not come nowhere near me. I have this. I'm not trying to use it against you. I'm just telling you to stay away from me." Elzey described Hunter's response after she reappeared in the living room with the knife: "He just said, excuse my language, he said, fuck that, bitch. You're going to have to do something. You're going to have to use that knife. That knife does not scare me." Elzey testified that Hunter "continued to come and approach me ... He was in my face ... I could feel his spit, he was...

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  • State v. Carter, 74, Sept. Term, 2019
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • January 29, 2021
    ...State may be incorrect. In the interest of providing balance lacking in the majority opinion, I provide the following thoughts about the 244 A.3d 1068 State's argument concerning deterrence. Although the State argues otherwise, deterring the crime of fare evasion may be found to advance the......
  • Beckwitt v. State, 16, Sept. Term, 2021
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • January 28, 2022
    ...A.3d 588, 596 (2021) (citation omitted). "We review de novo whether a jury instruction was a correct statement of the law." State v. Elzey, 472 Md. 84, 107, 244 A.3d 1068, 1082 (2021) (citation omitted). This is so "because even in areas where a trial court has discretion, no discretion is ......
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    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • January 28, 2022
    ...A.3d 588, 596 (2021) (citation omitted). "We review de novo whether a jury instruction was a correct statement of the law." State v. Elzey, 472 Md. 84, 107, 244 A.3d 1068, 1082 (2021) (citation omitted). This is so "because even in areas where a trial court has discretion, no discretion is ......
  • Lalchan v. United States, 19-CF-914
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    • September 15, 2022
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