State v. Galicia

Citation479 Md. 341,278 A.3d 131
Decision Date27 June 2022
Docket Number5, Sept. Term, 2021
Parties STATE of Maryland v. Rony GALICIA
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

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

Argued by Isabelle Raquin, Assigned Public Defender (Stephen B. Mercer, Assigned Public Defender, RaquinMercer LLC, Rockville, MD), on brief, for Respondent.

Argued before:* Getty, C.J., *McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Booth, Biran, Irma S. Raker (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

McDonald, J. In June 2017, on the eve of their high school graduation, two teenagers were ambushed and shot multiple times while they sat in a parked car in a cul-de-sac in Montgomery County. Four men, including Respondent Rony Galicia, were charged and ultimately convicted of the murders in three separate trials. The Court of Special Appeals reversed Mr. Galicia's conviction on the basis of two evidentiary issues that arose during his trial. We reach a different conclusion on both of those issues.

The first issue is whether the trial court abused its discretion when it declined to allow Mr. Galicia to cross-examine one of the State's witnesses about out-of-court statements allegedly made by one of his co-defendants. We hold that the State's direct examination of that witness did not prejudice Mr. Galicia such that it triggered a right to elicit otherwise inadmissible evidence on cross-examination. We also hold that, even if the particular statement Mr. Galicia sought to introduce – in which one of his co-defendants allegedly told the co-defendant's girlfriend that his younger brother, also a co-defendant, had "shot them guys, too" – could fit within a hearsay exception for a statement against the declarant's penal interest, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in limiting the proposed cross-examination.

The second issue arises from a prosecution witness’ trial testimony about the tracking of Mr. Galicia's location on the evening of the murders through data generated by cell phones and other electronic devices. That issue is whether a witness must be qualified as an expert to testify that a user of a smartphone may turn off the location tracking feature of an application on the phone. We hold that a user's ability to adjust the location tracking feature of a smartphone is within the understanding of the average lay person and that a witness whose testimony referred to that ability did not have to be qualified as an expert.

A. The Murders

Late on the evening of June 5, 2017, two high school seniors who were scheduled to graduate the next day from their school in Germantown were murdered while they sat in a car parked in a cul-de-sac in Montgomery Village. One of the teenagers, Shadi Najjar, had an extra ticket to the graduation ceremony, hoped to sell it, and had made an arrangement over Snapchat1 to meet the supposed purchaser at that location.

His friend, Artem Ziberov, waited with him. Mr. Najjar was shot three times in the head at close range and once in the thigh. Mr. Ziberov was shot at least 10 times in the neck, chest, back, and arms.

Ballistic and forensic evidence established that multiple guns were used in the attack.

B. The Charges and the Trial of Mr. Galicia

Four individuals were arrested and charged with the murders: Jose Ovilson Canales-Yanez, Edgar Garcia-Gaona, his younger half-brother Roger Garcia, and Mr. Galicia.2 All four were convicted in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County of various charges related to the murders as a result of three separate trials. This appeal arises out of a trial of Mr. Galicia, Mr. Garcia-Gaona, and (for a time) Mr. Garcia.3

This appeal involves two discrete evidentiary issues that arose during the State's case with respect to Mr. Galicia. Mr. Galicia has not disputed that the State's evidence presented at trial, if believed by the jury, was sufficient to support his convictions. There is no need to review that evidence in detail to address the issues before us. To provide some context for the two specific issues before us, we describe briefly the theory of the State's case and of Mr. Galicia's defense.

1. The Prosecution's Theory of the Case

In its opening statement and closing arguments, the prosecution laid out its theory of the case: On December 14, 2016, Mr. Canales-Yanez's pregnant wife had arranged to sell marijuana to Mr. Najjar. At the agreed-upon time for the transaction, Mr. Najjar drove up to her, reached through the car window, grabbed the bag of marijuana from her hand, and drove off without paying. In the process, he ran over her foot. As a result, she was hospitalized; her unborn child apparently was unharmed. Later that day, Mr. Canales-Yanez repeatedly attempted to reach Mr. Najjar by phone, without success.

According to the prosecution, Mr. Canales-Yanez decided to take revenge on Mr. Najjar for the injury to his wife. He enlisted his friends, Mr. Garcia-Gaona and Mr. Galicia, in that effort. Their opportunity arose in June 2017 when Mr. Najjar advertised over Snapchat that he had an extra ticket to his high school graduation the next day that he would be willing to sell. According to the prosecution, the conspirators obtained the assistance of Mr. Garcia-Gaona's brother, Mr. Garcia, who had recently graduated from the same school as Mr. Najjar. Mr. Garcia communicated with Mr. Najjar over Snapchat on June 5, 2017, and arranged to meet at a cul-de-sac in Montgomery Village to purchase the graduation ticket.

Mr. Ziberov accompanied Mr. Najjar that evening. Mr. Najjar sent a message to Mr. Garcia via Snapchat that he had arrived at the agreed-upon location. At approximately 10:30 p.m. that evening, according to the prosecution, the conspirators arrived and shot Mr. Najjar and Mr. Ziberov with three, or possibly four, different guns as the two teenagers waited in the car for the rendezvous. Mr. Garcia-Gaona destroyed Mr. Najjar's cell phone in an apparent effort to eliminate evidence of the victim's Snapchat communications with his brother.

The State called 43 witnesses and introduced more than 500 exhibits. In addition to the evidence that is the subject of this appeal, the State presented, among other things, the testimony of Victoria Kuria, Mr. Garcia's then-girlfriend, who said that she had observed Mr. Galicia and the other defendants in the Garcia family trailer on the night of the murders; ballistics and forensic evidence linking the defendants in different ways to the crime (including DNA evidence that linked Mr. Galicia to shell casings at the scene of the shooting); recorded jail calls between Mr. Garcia-Gaona and Mr. Galicia, a police interview of Mr. Galicia while he was in custody on other charges; and historical cell site analysis concerning locations of the defendants’ cell phones.

2. Mr. Galicia's Theory of the Case

In the defense's opening statement and closing argument, Mr. Galicia's attorney told the jury that, although she agreed with the State that Mr. Canales-Yanez, Mr. Garcia-Gaona, and Mr. Garcia had participated in the murders, Mr. Galicia was not part of the conspiracy. The defense questioned the credibility of Ms. Kuria; questioned the accuracy of forensic evidence that connected Mr. Galicia to the crime; and presented records related to Mr. Galicia's Xbox to support an inference that Mr. Galicia had spent that evening in his room watching a movie on that device. Four character witnesses testified on his behalf. Mr. Galicia elected not to testify in his own defense.

3. The Verdict

On November 19, 2018, the jury returned a verdict finding Mr. Galicia guilty of two counts of first-degree premeditated murder, two counts of first-degree felony murder, conspiracy to commit murder, two counts of use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, and armed robbery. On January 22, 2019, the Circuit Court sentenced Mr. Galicia to consecutive terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on the two first-degree murder convictions, a concurrent life term on the conspiracy count, and consecutive terms totaling 60 years’ incarceration on the firearms and robbery counts.

4. Mr. Galicia's Appeal

Mr. Galicia filed a timely appeal. In an unreported opinion, the Court of Special Appeals reversed his convictions and ordered a new trial. Galicia v. State , 2021 WL 130513 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Jan. 14, 2021).4 The intermediate appellate court held that: (1) the trial court improperly restricted Mr. Galicia's counsel from questioning a prosecution witness about out-of-court statements allegedly made by his co-defendant, Mr. Garcia-Gaona, that were impliedly exculpatory as to Mr. Galicia and that should have been admitted under an exception to the hearsay rule for statements against penal interest; and (2) the trial court erred when it allowed a lay witness to testify that a cell phone user such as Mr. Galicia has the ability to turn off location tracking associated with the user's Google accounts – testimony that offered a potential explanation for a gap in the location tracking data associated with Mr. Galicia's Google accounts that included the date of the murders. The State filed a petition for a writ of certiorari , which we granted to review the two grounds on which the intermediate appellate court reversed Mr. Galicia's convictions.

IIHearsay and the Scope of Cross-Examination

The first issue before us arises from the trial judge's refusal to allow Mr. Galicia's attorney to cross-examine a prosecution witness about out-of-court statements that his co-defendant Mr. Garcia-Gaona allegedly made to her. Counsel sought to pursue that line of questioning after the State had elicited that witness’ testimony about other out-of-court statements by Mr. Garcia-Gaona and had introduced those statements solely against Mr. Garcia-Gaona.

Before we describe the trial proceedings and analyze the issue, it is useful to review briefly the general principles governing the...

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8 cases
  • Garcia v. State
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • 11 Agosto 2022
    ...felony murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and other related offenses. Those convictions were affirmed on appeal in State v. Galicia , 479 Md. 341, 278 A.3d 131 (2022).Roger Garcia originally went to trial with Galicia, but a mistrial was granted for Roger Garcia only as his attorney becam......
  • Hooks v. State
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • 21 Julio 2023
    ...... trial court is given wide latitude in controlling the. admissibility of evidence." Taneja , 231 Md.App. at 11. "An appellate court typically reviews a trial. court's ruling on the admission of evidence for abuse of. discretion." State v. Galicia , 479 Md. 341,. 389, cert. denied , 143 S.Ct. 491 (2022). "An. abuse of discretion exists 'where no reasonable person. would take the view adopted by the trial court, or when the. court acts without reference to any guiding rules or. principles.'" In re Richard M. , ......
  • Rodgers v. State
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • 14 Noviembre 2022
    ...testimony). In State v. Galicia, the Court of Appeals recently explored this dichotomy in the context of location tracking data. 479 Md. 341 (2022). There, an employee from offered testimony explaining that "a user of a device could turn off Google's location tracking" and that there was a ......
  • Rodgers v. State
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • 14 Noviembre 2022
    ...testimony). In State v. Galicia, the Court of Appeals recently explored this dichotomy in the context of location tracking data. 479 Md. 341 (2022). There, an employee from offered testimony explaining that "a user of a device could turn off Google's location tracking" and that there was a ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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