State v. Jones, No. 52

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtOpinion by Barbera, C.J.
Decision Date28 August 2019
Docket NumberNo. 52


No. 52


Argued: January 31, 2019
September Term, 2018
August 28, 2019

CRIMINAL PROCEDURESUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCEACCOMPLICE CORROBORATION RULE — The accomplice corroboration rule, as it was structured at the time of trial, required evidence independent of accomplice testimony to implicate a defendant in a crime or identify the defendant with the perpetrators of the crime at or near the time it was committed. That evidence was not presented here, and thus the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals overturning the conviction of Respondent as being legally insufficient.

CRIMINAL PROCEDUREACCOMPLICE CORROBORATION RULEABROGATION — The accomplice corroboration rule, in its most stringent form, precludes convicting a defendant based solely on the testimony of the defendant's accomplices. Slight corroborative evidence is required to sustain a conviction. The rule applies in a minority of states and is grounded in outdated legal reasoning. Presented with an opportunity to reevaluate the rule and after thorough examination of its utility, the Court of Appeals abrogated the accomplice corroboration rule as it was structured, leaving it exclusively to the jury to assess the credibility of accomplice testimony. In place of the now-abrogated rule, a trial judge should give a cautionary jury instruction when the State introduces accomplice testimony.

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Circuit Court for Baltimore County
Case No. 03-K-15-005488

Barbera, C.J., *Greene McDonald Watts Hotten Getty Wilner, Alan M., (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned) JJ.

Opinion by Barbera, C.J.
McDonald, J., concurs and dissents.

Watts, J., concurs and dissents.

Hotten and Greene, JJ., concur and dissent.

*Greene, J., now retired, participated in the hearing and conference of this case while an active member of this Court; after being recalled pursuant to the Maryland Constitution, Article IV, Section 3A, he also participated in the decision and adoption of this opinion.

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We are presented here with an opportunity to reconsider Maryland's common law accomplice corroboration rule, which requires that accomplice testimony be independently verified to sustain a conviction. For reasons that follow, we abrogate the rule and hold that the jury, after proper instruction about the possible unreliability of accomplice testimony, is entitled to weigh the sufficiency of such evidence without the need for independent corroboration. First, though, we must apply the current accomplice corroboration rule to resolve the present case. In doing so, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals, which overturned Respondent's conviction based on the lack of independent evidence that would corroborate the accomplice testimony.

Facts and Procedural History

A. The Underlying Incident.

Around 4:30 a.m. on August 9, 2015, Sandeep Bhulai's body was discovered lying next to his vehicle, which was idling with the doors ajar. Mr. Bhulai had been shot multiple times—once in the head, once in the neck, once in the chest, once in the left elbow, and twice in the left arm. The police found 9-millimeter and .380 caliber cartridge casings surrounding Mr. Bhulai. The police collected fingerprints from Mr. Bhulai's vehicle and a motor scooter that was found near the scene.

The investigation led police to six suspects: (1) Christian Tyson; (2) Keith Harrison; (3) Kareem Riley; (4) Ramart Wilson; (5) Michael Jobes; and (6) Hassan Jones, Respondent here. Fingerprints from Harrison, Riley, Wilson, and Tyson were discovered at the crime scene. Later that summer, police arrested Harrison for marijuana possession

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and found a .380 caliber handgun that matched the one used in Mr. Bhulai's murder. After interviewing a few of the suspects who implicated Jobes, police executed a search warrant on Jobes's home and found Mr. Bhulai's cell phone. Cell phone locational data placed phones related to all the suspects, except Respondent and Tyson, near the scene of the murder on the night in question. Respondent was implicated solely by the accounts of Tyson, Riley, and Wilson. Wilson identified Respondent in a photograph, which was allegedly taken on the night of the murder, by writing Respondent's nickname, "Teefy," in front of Respondent's image.1

B. Respondent's Arrest and Trial.

On September 10, 2015, police arrested Respondent. Respondent initially denied having a nickname, cell phone, and any knowledge of the crime or the other five suspects. After Respondent's cell phone number was discovered in Jobes's phone and vice versa, Respondent conceded that he had a cell phone and had the nickname "Teefy;" yet Respondent continued to deny that he knew Jobes. Respondent was later charged with first- and second-degree murder, first-degree felony murder, use of a firearm during a violent crime, conspiracy to commit armed carjacking, and armed robbery.

At Respondent's trial, Tyson, Riley, and Wilson testified pursuant to plea agreements. Their testimony was consistent and demonstrated that the group, including Respondent, attended a party in Reisterstown and then an "after party" in Woodlawn on the night of the murder starting sometime around 9 p.m. The State entered into evidence a

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photograph that Wilson testified was taken on his cell phone sometime between 12:30 a.m. and 1:40 a.m. and depicted Wilson, Respondent, and the rest of the group. Wilson testified that after leaving the party, the group agreed to go to Middle River to steal something. When they reached a residential area, the group split up. Wilson further testified that he, Riley, and Harrison attempted to steal a motor scooter, but they were unable to trigger the ignition. Wilson then helped Riley return to Riley's car because he was "very intoxicated." Meanwhile, Harrison left to reconnect with the others.

Mr. Bhulai was killed between 3:00 and 3:15 a.m. Tyson testified about the murder. He said that the group, including Respondent, forced Mr. Bhulai out of his car at gunpoint. While holding Mr. Bhulai at gunpoint, Tyson took Mr. Bhulai's cell phone. Jobes, Harrison, and Respondent then shot Mr. Bhulai multiple times. Immediately after the shooting, Jobes took Mr. Bhulai's wallet, and the group fled to Riley's car.

Riley and Wilson, who remained in Riley's car during the murder, both testified that they heard gunshots. Shortly thereafter, the group returned and Harrison, Jobes, and Respondent were all carrying handguns. According to Riley's testimony, Respondent told him to "hurry up and get us away from here, we just shot someone."

In addition to the accomplices' testimony, the State presented testimony from detectives and forensic experts and offered physical evidence. Although that evidence "generally corroborated" the accomplices' testimony regarding their "movements and activities that evening," none of the physical evidence (i.e., locational data and fingerprints) directly implicated Respondent.

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After the State closed its case, Respondent moved for a judgment of acquittal on all charges, arguing that the accomplices' testimony was not corroborated. The court denied the motion, ruling that the photograph on Wilson's phone served as independent corroboration. Respondent did not put on a defense case.

Among other instructions, the court instructed the jury that the accomplice testimony must be independently corroborated. The court read pattern instruction MPJI-3:1—Testimony of Accomplice—set forth in the Maryland State Bar Standing Committee on Pattern Jury Instructions, see MPJI-Cr 3:11 Testimony of Accomplice, which, with the names added, states:

You have heard testimony from Christian Tyson, Kareem Riley and Ramart Wilson who were accomplices. An accomplice is one who knowingly and voluntarily cooperated with, aided, advised or encouraged another person in the commission of a crime. The Defendant cannot be convicted solely on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice. You must first decide whether the testimony of Christian Tyson, Kareem Riley and Ramart Wilson was corroborated before you consider it. Only slight corroboration is required. This means there must be some evidence which you believe in addition to the testimony of Christian Tyson, Kareem Riley and Ramart Wilson that shows either, one, that the Defendant committed the crime charged; or two, that the Defendant was with others who committed the crime at or about the time and place the crime was committed.
If you find that the testimony of Christian Tyson, Kareem Riley and Ramart Wilson has been corroborated, you may consider it but you should do so with caution and give it the weight you believe it deserves. If you do not find that the testimony of Christian Tyson, Kareem Riley and Ramart Wilson has been corroborated, you must disregard it and may not consider it as evidence against the Defendant.
You have heard evidence that Christian Tyson, Kareem Riley and Ramart Wilson have pleaded guilty to a crime arising out of the same events for which the Defendant is now on trial. The guilty plea of th[ese] witness[es] must not be considered as evidence against this [D]efendant. You may consider the testimony of a witness who testifies for the State as a result of a plea agreement. However, you should consider such testimony with caution because the testimony may have been influenced by a desire to gain a benefit by testifying against the Defendant.

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Of all the charges, the jury convicted Respondent only of conspiracy to commit armed carjacking. Respondent then moved for a new trial, again asserting that the accomplices' testimony lacked the requisite independent corroboration. The trial judge again denied the motion and imposed a thirty-year sentence.

Respondent appealed, and a three-judge panel of the Court of Special Appeals, in an unreported opinion, reversed the judgment of conviction. The court held that the accomplices' testimony was not...

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