Trimble v. State

Decision Date01 September 1982
Docket Number98,Nos. 15,s. 15
Citation300 Md. 387,478 A.2d 1143
PartiesJames Russell TRIMBLE v. STATE of Maryland. ,
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Gary W. Christopher and George E. Burns, Jr., Asst. Public Defenders, Baltimore (Alan H. Murrell, Public Defender, Baltimore, on brief), for appellant.

Stephanie J. Lane, Asst. Atty. Gen., Baltimore (Stephen H. Sachs, Atty. Gen. and Deborah K. Handel, Asst. Atty. Gen., Baltimore, on brief), for appellee.


COLE, Judge.

On March 12, 1982, after a jury trial in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, James Russell Trimble was found guilty of first-degree murder, first-degree rape, two counts of first-degree sexual offense, two counts of kidnapping, and one count of assault. His only defense was insanity. After the jury verdict, Trimble elected to be sentenced by the court. On March 19, 1982, the Court sentenced Trimble to death on the murder count and imposed three life terms plus seventy years on the remaining counts. The entire case is before us pursuant to the automatic-review provision in Maryland Code Art. 27, § 414(a). We affirm.

The facts adduced at trial were as follows: On July 3, 1981, Melanie Rae Newsom and the murder victim, Nila Kay Rogers, went to a local tavern. In the tavern parking lot, Rogers met a school friend, James Hanna, who invited them to ride around in a van with him and some of his friends. The three of them entered a van containing Trimble, Terry and Joseph Evans, and Anthony Kordell. Previously, the Evans brothers and Kordell had taken PCP, marijuana, and beer, and Trimble had taken valium and beer.

Shortly after the women entered the van, Trimble tried to kiss Newsom, and when she resisted he screamed and began tearing off her clothing. Rogers attempted to intercede, but Trimble punched her and threw her into the back of the van; he then bit Newsom severely, and forced her to commit fellatio. After another futile attempt by Rogers to stop the assault on Newsom, the two women persuaded the men to stop the van, and Hanna took Newsom out into a cornfield, where he tried unsuccessfully to have intercourse with her. Meanwhile, Trimble and Joseph Evans raped Rogers; Kordell then tried to pull Rogers out of the van, and, as he did so, Trimble struck her on the head with a baseball bat. Kordell unsuccessfully tried to take the bat from Trimble, then retreated to the other side of the van while Trimble repeatedly struck Rogers with the bat. Trimble then dragged Rogers into the cornfield and slit her throat.

After disposing of Rogers' body, Trimble returned to the van. He and the others could not locate Hanna and Newsom, who were still in the cornfield, so they got into the van and left. Hanna and Newsom saw the van leave, and she persuaded him to accompany her to the side of the road. She then flagged down a passing motorcyclist, who took her to a nearby house where she called the police. Baltimore County police officers responded to the call and thereafter discovered the body of Rogers; she was pronounced dead at the scene at 6:30 a.m. on July 4, 1981. The cause of death was listed as severe head injuries from a blunt object.

Trimble's only defense was insanity. The trial court, after hearing testimony from Trimble's expert witness, determined that Trimble had generated an insanity issue. 1 The State produced Dr. Michael Spodak, who testified "to a reasonable degree of medical probability" that Trimble suffered from antisocial personality and mixed substance abuse by history, but that despite these disorders Trimble was not insane because he did not lack substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. 2 Dr Spodak further testified that Trimble had a below-normal, full-scale I.Q. of 64, but that this factor did not impair his sanity. The State then called Dr. Neil Blumberg, who testified that Trimble suffered from antisocial personality disorder and mixed substance abuse, but that these disorders did not render Trimble unable either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the law. This testimony was also based on "reasonable medical probability." Dr. Blumberg further stated that Trimble may have been faking his symptoms. He did not testify as to Trimble's I.Q. Dr. Robert Lehman then testified as the sole defense witness. Dr. Lehman testified to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that Trimble was suffering from antisocial personality, periodic organic psychosis, and mental retardation. However, he testified only to a "reasonable possibility" that these disorders caused him to lack substantial capacity to conform his conduct to the law. He declined to state this conclusion with reasonable medical certainty or probability.

Based on this evidence, the jury returned guilty verdicts on all seven counts of the indictment, rejecting Trimble's affirmative defense of insanity. After waiving his right to be sentenced by the jury, Trimble was sentenced to death by the trial judge. On this appeal, Trimble raises several contentions of error arising out of the guilt stage as well as the sentencing stage of the trial. We shall address each of his contentions in turn.


Trimble's first contention of error focuses on the trial court's instructions to the jury on insanity. The court instructed the jury, in pertinent part, as follows:

Ladies and gentlemen, I will read to you the legal definition of insanity as used in criminal cases in Maryland, and this you are responsible for and bound by. This is the definition of insanity that is your responsibility to apply in this case. A defendant is not responsible for criminal conduct and shall be found insane at the time of the commission of the alleged crime if, at the time of such conduct, as a result of mental disorder, he lacked substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law.

* * *

* * *

Therefore, the first determination which has to be made is whether the defendant at the time of the acts charged against him was or was not afflicted by a mental disorder. Mental disorder as defined by law means mental illness or any other form of behavioral or emotional illness resulting from any psychiatric or neurological disorder. The term shall not include mental retardation. [Emphasis supplied.]

Trimble argues that this instruction was not a complete and accurate statement of the law. He bases his argument on § 12-107 of the Health-General Article, which provides:

§ 12-107. Insanity--Test of responsibility for criminal conduct.

A defendant is not responsible for criminal conduct if, at the time of that conduct, the defendant, because of mental retardation or a mental disorder, lacks substantial capacity:

(1) To appreciate the criminality of that conduct; or

(1) To conform that conduct to the requirements of law. (Emphasis supplied).

Trimble maintains that the court's instruction excluded any consideration of mental retardation by the jury as a basis for a finding of insanity. Trimble is correct. Trimble, however, did not object to the court's instruction. Nonetheless, he persists we should recognize the court's failure properly to instruct the jury as plain error under Maryland Rule 757h.

Rule 757h provides that an appellate court may, in its discretion, "take cognizance of and correct any plain error in the instructions, material to the rights of the defendant even though the error was not objected to as provided by Rule 757f." 3 Trimble maintains that the circumstances of this case justify our exercising such discretion. We disagree and shall decline his invitation.

We said in State v. Hutchinson, 287 Md. 198, 203, 411 A.2d 1035, 1038 (1980), that "we have characterized instances when an appellate court should take cognizance of unobjected to error as compelling, extraordinary, exceptional or fundamental to assure the defendant of fair trial." We further made clear that we would intervene in those circumstances only when the error complained of was so material to the rights of the accused as to amount to the kind of prejudice which precluded an impartial trial. Id. Thus, we shall examine the circumstances at the time of the court's instructions to determine if the court's omission was prejudicial.

As we have already noted, § 12-107 plainly includes both mental disorders and mental retardation as potential causes of legal insanity. Section 12-101(f)(3) states that "mental disorder" does not include "mental retardation" and the trial court's instruction so stated. The instruction did not, however, advise the jury that either affliction could cause a defendant to be found legally insane 4 if either substantially limited the capacity of the defendant to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform that conduct to the requirements of law.

The question we must answer, then, is whether there was evidence adduced during the course of the trial which generated a jury issue as to whether the defendant's mental retardation caused him to be legally insane. Dr. Spodak testified that Trimble had a full-scale I.Q. of 64, placing him in the borderline or mild range of mental retardation. Dr. Lehman made a passing reference that Trimble had a below-normal I.Q. of 64. Dr. Lehman did not state that this condition caused Trimble to lack substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the law. As a matter of fact, Dr. Lehman virtually excluded mental retardation from his analysis of Trimble's responsibility under § 12-107. Dr. Lehman stated:

In my review with Mr. Trimble he complained [of] no difficulty in appreciating the fact that what he was doing was wrong. He knew that. He claims, though, he was hallucinating that night and saw gorillas that night. W...

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