State v. Stewart, No. 53

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtPer Curiam
PartiesSTATE OF MARYLAND v. WILLIE B. STEWART
Decision Date25 June 2019
Docket NumberNo. 53

STATE OF MARYLAND
v.
WILLIE B. STEWART

No. 53

COURT OF APPEALS OF MARYLAND

Argued: February 5, 2019
September Term 2018
June 25, 2019


Criminal Law - Inconsistent Verdicts. The indictment charged the defendant with robbery, second-degree assault, and theft. The jury returned a guilty verdict on the robbery and theft charges and a not guilty verdict on the second-degree assault charge. The verdicts on the robbery and assault charges were not inconsistent so as to require reversal of the robbery conviction.

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Circuit Court for Baltimore County
Case No. 03-K-16-004418

Barbera, C.J. Greene McDonald Watts Hotten Getty Adkins, Sally D. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Per Curiam Opinion

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Background

Respondent Willie B. Stewart was charged in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County with various offenses that allegedly occurred at an ice cream store before it opened on August 12, 2016. In particular, he was charged with robbery of Brian Rampmeyer, the owner of the store, second-degree assault of Mr. Rampmeyer, and theft of property with a value less than $1,000.

The trial took place on May 23, 2017. At the close of the evidence, the Circuit Court denied a defense motion for judgment of acquittal on each of the three counts, thus finding that there was sufficient evidence to create a jury issue as to each of the charges. The court then instructed the jury on the law governing the alleged offenses. Pertinent to this appeal, the court instructed the jury as follows concerning robbery:

The Defendant is charged with the crime of robbery. Robbery is the taking and carrying away of property from someone else by force or threat of force with the intent to deprive the victim of the property. To convict the Defendant of robbery, the State must prove that the Defendant took the property from Brian Rampmeyer, that the Defendant took the property by force or threat of force, and that the Defendant intended to deprive Brian Rampmeyer of the property. Property means anything of value.

The robbery instruction was evidently based on a pattern jury instruction developed by a committee of the Maryland State Bar Association ("MSBA").1

Also pertinent to this appeal, the court instructed the jury as follows concerning second-degree assault:

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The Defendant is charged with the crime of assault. Assault is intentionally frightening another person with the threat of immediate physical harm. To convict the Defendant of assault, the State must prove the Defendant committed an act with the intent to place Brian Rampmeyer in fear of immediate physical harm, that the Defendant had the apparent ability at that time to bring about physical harm, and that Brian Rampmeyer reasonably feared immediate physical harm, and that the Defendant's actions were not legally justified.

Like the robbery instruction, the court's instruction on second-degree assault was based on an MSBA pattern instruction concerning second-degree assault.2

The parties agree that the Circuit Court's instructions on robbery and second-degree assault were accurate statements of the law governing those charges. There was no dispute that the evidence presented at trial generated these two instructions. No objection was made to these instructions - or any of the court's other instructions.

The jury found Mr. Stewart guilty of the robbery and theft charges, but acquitted him of the second-degree assault charge. Immediately after the jury returned the verdict, Mr. Stewart's counsel requested a bench conference. At the bench conference, he told the court that, in his view, the verdicts on the robbery and second-degree assault charges were inconsistent and that the jury should be required to continue to deliberate until it reached consistent verdicts. The State responded that the verdicts were not inconsistent. The

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Circuit Court agreed with the State and declined to take further action on that ground.3

At Mr. Stewart's sentencing on July 25, 2017, the Circuit Court merged the theft conviction into the robbery conviction and sentenced him to 15 years imprisonment.

Mr. Stewart appealed his convictions, solely on the ground that the trial court had erred in accepting inconsistent verdicts. In an unreported decision, the Court of Special Appeals reversed the conviction on the robbery count. The intermediate appellate court based its holding on a distinction between "legally inconsistent" verdicts and "factually inconsistent" verdicts made in McNeal v. State, 426 Md. 455 (2012), which held that a verdict in a criminal case that is "legally inconsistent" (as opposed to a verdict that is only "factually inconsistent") is unacceptable. Applying that distinction to this case, the Court of Special Appeals concluded that the guilty verdict on the robbery conviction should be reversed. It summarized case law concerning the elements of robbery and second-degree assault and reasoned that, in light of the "uncontradicted evidence" presented at trial, the guilty verdict on the robbery charge was legally inconsistent with the acquittal on the second-degree assault charge because the assault offense was a lesser-included offense of the robbery. Accordingly, the intermediate appellate court overturned the guilty verdict on the robbery count and remanded the case for sentencing on the theft count. Stewart v. State,

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No. 1291 (Sept. 2017 Term), 2018 WL 3777459 (August 8, 2018).4

The State filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, which we granted. 461 Md. 613 (2018).

Disposition

A majority of this Court agrees that the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals should be reversed and that the guilty verdict on the robbery count should be affirmed.

The members of the Court who agree with this disposition do so for somewhat different reasons. Three judges - in an opinion by Judge McDonald (joined by Chief Judge Barbera and Senior Judge Adkins) - would not be concerned with distinguishing a "legally inconsistent" verdict from a "factually inconsistent" one, but rather with whether the verdict demonstrates that the jury disregarded the trial court's instructions on the law. In their view, a reviewing court must consider the instructions given by the trial court and whether the jury's verdict, on its face, shows that the jury disregarded those instructions. Concluding that the verdict in this case does not demonstrate that the jury disregarded the court's instructions, they would hold that the guilty verdict on the robbery count should not be reversed on the ground of inconsistency.

Two judges - in an opinion by Judge Watts (joined by Judge Getty) - would apply a two-step analysis in which the reviewing court first confirms that the trial court correctly instructed the jury on the elements of the offenses and then ascertains whether the verdicts

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are "legally inconsistent" - that is, whether the charge of which the jury found the defendant not guilty is a lesser-included offense of the charge of which the jury found the defendant guilty. Applying that analysis, they would reach a different conclusion from the Court of Special Appeals and hold that the guilty verdict on the robbery charge in this case was not "legally inconsistent" with the not guilty verdict on the second-degree assault charge because, in their view, second-degree assault of the intent-to-frighten type is not a lesser-included offense of robbery. In addition, upon review of the evidence at trial, they conclude that the evidence satisfied the elements of robbery, but did not establish the elements of second-degree assault of the intent-to-frighten type.

Two members of the Court dissent from the Court's disposition of this appeal. Judge Greene agrees with Judge Watts that the analysis should distinguish "legally inconsistent" verdicts from "factually inconsistent" verdicts. However, he would adopt the analysis of the Court of Special Appeals and hold that, because second-degree assault is generally a lesser-included offense of robbery, the guilty verdict on the robbery count in this case was "legally inconsistent" with the not guilty verdict on the second-degree assault count and therefore should be reversed. He would affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

Judge Hotten would follow the same framework as Judge Watts and Judge Greene - i.e., she would assess whether a verdict is "legally inconsistent" by looking to whether one of the charged offenses is a lesser-included offense of another charge. In her view, case law has established that second-degree assault, of either the battery or intent-to-frighten variety, is a lesser-included offense of robbery. She disagrees with Judge Watts

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as to whether the evidence at trial fell short of proof of second-degree assault. Accordingly, Judge Hotten would hold that the verdicts in this case were legally inconsistent and the guilty verdict on the robbery count must be reversed. She would affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

JUDGMENT OF THE COURT OF SPECIAL APPEALS REVERSED. CASE REMANDED TO THAT COURT WITH INSTRUCTION TO AFFIRM THE JUDGMENT OF THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR BALTIMORE COUNTY. RESPONDENT TO PAY COSTS IN THIS COURT AND IN THE COURT OF SPECIAL APPEALS.

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Circuit Court for Baltimore County
Case No. 03-K-16-004418

Barbera, C.J. Greene McDonald Watts Hotten Getty Adkins, Sally D. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Opinion by McDonald, J., which Barbera, C.J., and Adkins, J., join.

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I agree with the Court's disposition of this case and have no quarrel with Judge Watts' thorough discussion of the recent case law in Maryland on inconsistent verdicts. That case law, however, has led me to reconsider our approach to this issue.

The United States Supreme Court has held that, under federal law, inconsistent verdicts in a criminal case generally do not entitle the defendant to have a guilty verdict overturned. United States v. Powell, 469 U.S. 57 (1984). Until relatively recently, this Court had a similar view. E.g., State v. Williams, ...

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