Vetra v. State

Decision Date05 October 2021
Docket Number752-2020
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Circuit Court for Wicomico County Case No. C-22-CR-19-000324

Leahy Reed, Salmon, James P. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned) JJ.


Leahy J.

A young man approached the cashier at the Corner Market in Delmar, Maryland, on December 14, 2017. He pulled up his shirt, displayed the butt of a gun, and demanded that the cashier give him the money. Appellant, Mr. Patrick Orrie Vetra, was arrested following an investigation into the incident and charged with one count each of armed robbery, robbery, assault in the second degree, and theft.

At the conclusion of his trial before a jury in the Circuit Court for Wicomico County in January 2020, Mr. Vetra was convicted of armed robbery and robbery. He was later sentenced to incarceration for a period of twenty years, all but fifteen suspended. Mr. Vetra noted a timely appeal.

Mr. Vetra assigns numerous errors to the trial court, the individual and cumulative effect of which, he contends, require that we vacate his convictions and remand his case for a new trial. He presents the following questions, which we have rephrased:

I. Did the trial court commit plain error in failing to ask, during voir dire, the question that Mr. Vetra requested the court to ask concerning whether any potential jurors had "strong feelings" about the crimes with which he was charged?
II. Did the trial court err in admitting testimony that Mr. Vetra's behavior changed in response to questions about non-specific robberies, and then, did the court abuse its discretion by denying Mr. Vetra's motion for a mistrial?
III. Did the trial court abuse its discretion in denying Mr. Vetra's motion for a mistrial following testimony implying that he invoked either his right to remain silent or his right to an attorney?
IV. Did the trial court abuse its discretion in denying Mr. Vetra's motion for a mistrial following testimony that he was incarcerated for another crime at the time that he allegedly confessed to the crimes charged?
V. Does the cumulative effect of these evidentiary errors warrant vacating Mr. Vetra's convictions and remanding for a new trial?

We hold that Mr. Vetra waived the trial court's error in failing to present prospective jurors with the "strong feelings" question that he submitted with his written voir dire requests, and, therefore, we decline to exercise plain error review. From there, we hold that the trial court did not err in admitting testimony that Mr. Vetra's behavior changed in response to questions about the robbery; nor did the court abuse its discretion in denying Mr. Vetra's motions for mistrial. Finally, after observing that no prejudicial evidence was actually admitted into evidence by the court, and that the State presented strong witness testimony and physical evidence in support of Mr. Vetra's convictions, we conclude that any cumulative prejudice resulting from the alleged errors and abuses of discretion was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.


Mr. Vetra does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence. Still, to provide context for our examination of his contentions of error and abuse of discretion, and their prejudicial effect, we review the testimony and other evidence presented at Mr. Vetra's trial, held on January 15 and 16, 2020. We later supplement these facts in our discussion of the issues.

A. The Incident

Ms. Lula Foskey testified that she was working as the cashier at the Corner Market on Bi State Boulevard on December 14, 2017, when around 2:35 p.m., a "white male in [his] 20's" entered the store and approached her.[1] He pulled up his shirt, displayed the butt of a gun, and demanded that she "give him the money." Ms. Foskey complied and was handing the perpetrator money out of the cash register until she was instructed to "hurry up," at which time the perpetrator reached over her shoulder and forcibly removed the remaining money. After the perpetrator exited the store, surveillance footage captured him fleeing the scene on a bicycle.

Several minutes after the crime occurred, Officer Nicolas Aungst, of the Rehoboth Beach Police Department, responded to the Corner Market. Once on the scene, Officer Aungst interviewed Ms. Foskey, who described the perpetrator as "a white male wearing a dark-hooded jacket." According to Officer Aungst, later that same afternoon, Ms. Foskey specified that the perpetrator had "displayed the butt of a handgun" and had thrown a pair of blue gloves into a nearby garbage can.

Sometime between 1:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. on the day of the robbery, Ms. Nakima Reaves noticed an abandoned bicycle in her yard. Officer Aungst attested that Ms. Reaves lives in close geographic proximity to the Corner Market, [2] and generally in the direction that security camera footage captured the perpetrator traveling. When officers arrived at Ms. Reaves's residence to recover the bicycle, they also discovered a BB gun "approximately 15 feet" from the bicycle. Officer August testified that the bicycle captured in surveillance footage from the Corner Market matched the bicycle recovered in Ms. Reaves's yard.

B. The DNA Swab and Meeting with Officers

On June 6, 2018, Detective Ronald Marzec of the Delmar Police Department and an officer from the City of Laurel met with Mr. Vetra to collect a DNA sample and question him about various robberies.[3] At the beginning of the interview, Mr. Vetra signed a Miranda form after he was read his Miranda rights.[4] During the interview, Detective Marzec questioned Mr. Vetra about the robbery of the Corner Market on December 14, 2017. When asked about his whereabouts on the day of the robbery, Mr. Vetra responded that he was in inpatient rehabilitative treatment. However, after Detective Marzec informed Mr. Vetra that he knew he was not in inpatient treatment on the date of the crime, Mr. Vetra ended the interview by requesting an attorney.[5]

On March 26, 2019, Detective Marzec filed a statement of charges against Mr. Vetra enumerating four counts related to the armed robbery of the Corner Market on December 14, 2017.

Ms. Lindsey Sanney testified as an expert in the field of forensic DNA analysis. She related that her lab received a "swab of a blue surgical glove and a swab of a black Crossman Phantom BB gun." She explained that the lab's analysis of the blue surgical glove revealed "a partial DNA profile including at least one male contributor," however, "due to the limited data obtained no conclusions [could] be made on [the] partial profile." The analysis of the BB gun revealed that "the DNA . . . [was] consistent with a mixture of three or more individuals including a major male contributor." A major contributor, Ms. Sanney explained, is "someone that is contributing more DNA to [the] mixture than the other people present." After testing a sample of Mr. Vetra's DNA, the results showed that Mr. Vetra's sample was a match for the major contributor of DNA on the BB gun.

C. The Alleged Confession

Mr. Randy Brown, a family friend of Mr. Vetra, was called to testify by the State. Mr. Brown related that he twice spoke to Mr. Vetra about the Corner Market robbery. The first conversation took place at Mr. Vetra's father's house two or three days before the robbery occurred. Mr. Brown recalled that Mr. Vetra arrived at his father's house dressed in black, with a pistol in his possession, and said that he was "going to rob the store."

The second conversation that he and Mr. Vetra had occurred several months after the robbery while the two were "incarcerated at Naylor Mill Road."[6] During this conversation, Mr. Vetra revealed that he had robbed an "older lady" named "Miss Cathy." He also said that he used a bicycle to get to and from the Corner Market but, as he was fleeing the scene of the robbery, the bicycle chain detached, rendering it inoperable, so he discarded the bike into the bushes. Mr. Brown attested that the bike spotted on surveillance footage and left in Ms. Reaves's yard was the "bike that [Mr. Vetra's] mom let him borrow or [gave] to him" and that the gun used in the robbery was the same gun Mr. Vetra displayed during their first conversation days before the robbery.

I. Failure to Give "Strong Feelings" Voir Dire Question
A. The Voir Dire

Prior to trial, defense counsel submitted a written list of requested voir dire questions.[7] Of particular relevance here, defense counsel requested the following question:

14. The State alleges that the Defendant committed the crime of Armed

Robbery and related offenses. Do you have strong feelings about that crime? Despite the pre-trial request, the court did not ask this question. However, the court did ask:

Ladies and gentleman, do you feel that the nature of this case is such, and it's an alleged violent crime, do you feel the nature of this case is such that it would be difficult for you to render a fair and impartial verdict?

Despite the trial judge's failure to ask Mr. Vetra's requested "strong feelings" question, trial counsel did not, when given the opportunity, object or advise the court that the question had been omitted. Prior to voir dire questioning, the court asked counsel:

THE COURT: . . . Is there anything else, preliminarily, that we need to discuss that we haven't already discussed in chambers with regard to voir dire, challenges, anything like that before we -- bring the jury in?
[STATE]: Not from the State's perspective.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Not prior to the jury coming out, Your Honor.

(Cleaned up). Then near the conclusion of voir dire, the court asked: "So I will first ask you, before we move on to the couple of issues that we have with jurors, are there any other voir dire...

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