Yonga v. State

Decision Date28 January 2015
Docket NumberNo. 2441, Sept. Term, 2013.,2441, Sept. Term, 2013.
PartiesSam YONGA v. STATE of Maryland.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

William M. Ferris (Krause & Ferris, on the brief), Annapolis, MD, for appellant.

Carrie J. Williams (Douglas F. Gansler, Atty. Gen., on the brief), Baltimore, MD, for appellee.

Panel: WOODWARD, KEHOE, CHARLES E. MOYLAN, JR. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.



Non-proof of guilt is by no means proof of innocence. There is a critical, albeit widely neglected, distinction in the criminal law between the status of being procedurally not guilty and the far rarer status of being factually innocent. The presumption of innocence, notwithstanding its grand mellifluence, is simply a package of procedural protections for a defendant going to trial.1 It would be more semantically modest to call it a presumption of non-guilt. Actual innocence is something else again. Our subject for analysis is the Writ of Actual Innocence.

The Case At Hand

The appellant, Sam Yonga, was found guilty upon his plea of guilty by Judge Dana Levitz in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County on April 26, 2007 on the charge of a third-degree sexual offense. On May 15, 2013, the appellant filed a petition for a Writ of Actual Innocence pursuant to Maryland Code, Criminal Procedure Article, § 8–301. Following a full evidentiary hearing on December 12, 2013, Judge Sherrie Bailey denied the petition and this appeal followed. The single contention, precisely as posed by the appellant, is:

On the facts of this case, did Appellant sufficiently establish such newly-discovered evidence as to justify granting him a new trial?

The two-pronged response of the State leads with a strategic counterattack, broadly challenging the very applicability of the Writ of Actual Innocence to convictions based on guilty pleas. It follows with a tactical defense, focusing in specifically on the ad hoc merits (or lack thereof) of the case at hand.

A Generational Mesalliance

As of November 3, 2006, Sam Yonga was a 25–year–old man living in Prince George's County. He was in a long-term quasi-marital relationship with Emily Williams, the mother of his child. Unfortunately, Yonga was also addicted to the “chat room.” At the other end of his chatting was a 13–year–old girl, who lived with her mother and two younger siblings in an apartment in Baltimore County. On November 3, 2006, they agreed that Yonga would travel to Baltimore and would meet with her in the apartment where she lived, to what end we are not told. The meeting was arranged for a time the victim's mother would not be home. It was also decided that the victim would call in sick, in order to be absent from school.

The victim later acknowledged to the police that when Yonga first came into the apartment, they kissed and that there were times when he touched her breasts. She described how she and Yonga then went into her mother's bedroom and got into bed. She removed all of her clothes. He removed his pants and his underpants. She further recounted to the police that Yonga first touched her vaginal area with his hand and then attempted penile penetration.

At that fortuitous moment the victim's mother arrived home unexpectedly early. As the victim heard her mother approaching, she and Yonga leaped from the bed. As the mother walked into her bedroom, she observed her daughter, naked. Yonga below the waist was wearing only a condom. Bedlam ensued. The mother shrieked that she was going to get a knife and cut off his penis. His exodus, as he grabbed for his trousers, was accordingly precipitate. As Yonga attempted to pull on his pants while running, his cell phone dropped from his pants pocket. Although a tell-tale clue to his identity, he did not pause to pick it up.

The mother immediately scrolled through the cell phone and came up with the phone number of Yonga's mother. She dialed that number and informed the mother of what had taken place. Yonga's mother provided the victim's mother with Yonga's name, phone number, and address, all of which were ultimately passed on to the Baltimore County Police.

The mother first took her daughter to a “local clinic” where she asked for an examination for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases ). The victim also received a Depo–Provera shot, “which would be a birth control implant.” She then called the Baltimore County Police. Detective Jessica Hummel of the Sex Offense Unit took charge of the investigation. When she ultimately made telephone contact with Yonga, he claimed to have no idea why the detective was calling and insisted that he had never been in Baltimore County. When Detective Hummel probed further, Yonga hung up.

A day later and after a three-hour stand-off, Yonga was arrested in Prince George's County and was transported to Baltimore County. After being Mirandized, he agreed to give Detective Hummel a statement. He initially denied ever having been in Baltimore County and denied having any knowledge of the victim. He ultimately admitted, however, that he had met a girl on a chat line who told him that she was 19 years of age. He further admitted that he met with her in Baltimore County and went with her to her home, although he insisted that they never actually went into the house. He claimed that they were still on the porch when a woman came out of the house screaming. At that point, he deemed it discreet to flee.

Yonga was charged under a two-count criminal information, the first count charging a second-degree rape, involving sexual intercourse with a 13–year–old girl, and the second count charging a third-degree sexual offense, involving sexual contact. Pursuant to a plea bargain, the State nolle prossed the charge of second-degree rape. In return, Yonga entered a plea of guilty to the charge of a third-degree sexual offense. All of the facts above recounted are taken from the agreed statement of facts offered by the State in support of the guilty plea. When Judge Levitz asked if there were “any additions, corrections, or modifications to those facts?” Yonga's counsel replied:

MR. FATEMI: I think Madame State has properly went over what allegedly happened, just the fact that he never went in the house and in the statement he stated that he did not have sex.

(Emphasis supplied).

On June 4, 2007, Judge Levitz, pursuant to the plea bargain, sentenced Yonga to a term of 364 days incarceration at the Baltimore County Detention Center with all but six months suspended and with no term of probation.

A Dramatic and Diametric Change of Heart

Six years passed uneventfully by and this had, indeed, become a very cold case.

Yonga had finished serving his six months at the Baltimore County Detention Center years before. He was, moreover, not on probation.

Notwithstanding their earlier problems emanating from the chat room, however, neither Yonga nor his victim could resist the lures of telecommunication. They resumed a conversational relationship on Facebook and soon became good friends. According to her later statements, the victim was shocked to learn that Yonga had earlier been found guilty of a crime, a crime which she now was ready to swear had never happened. She claimed not to know that he had even been prosecuted. The victim's mother, once brought into the loop, apparently felt the same latter-day sympathy. The victim and Yonga together went to defense counsel's office and informed him of “the miscarriage of justice” which they stated had occurred.

On May 15, 2013, Yonga filed his Petition for a Writ of Actual Innocence pursuant to Maryland Code, Criminal Procedure Article, § 8–301 and Maryland Rule 4–332. A full evidentiary hearing on the petition was heard by Judge Sherrie Bailey on December 12, 2013. At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Bailey ruled:

After careful consideration and review of the transcript as well as the police reports submitted and the testimony and argument presented before the Court, most respectfully, [Defense Counsel], your request is denied.
There are simply too many inconsistencies. The transcript indicates that this young lady was given a Depo–Provera shot at the clinic that she was taken to, there are too many details. It just defies comprehension.
While, I do sympathize with the immigration issues and while I do understand what is patently obvious that [the victim] and the [her mother] clearly are attempting to do, most respectfully I don't believe a word that they said today. It just—they just—they're trying to help Mr. Yonga, quite honestly, and that's very patently clear.

(Emphasis supplied). This appeal has followed.

The Writ of Actual Innocence

As a new addition to the ranks of postconviction reviews, the Writ of Actual Innocence was enacted by Chapter 744, § 1, of the Acts of 2009. It became effective as of October 1, 2009, and is now codified as Maryland Code, Criminal Procedure Article, § 8–301. Its substantive thrust is contained in subsection (a).

(a) Grounds. A person charged by indictment or criminal information with a crime triable in circuit court and convicted of that crime may, at any time, file a petition for writ of actual innocence in the circuit court for the county in which the conviction was imposed if the person claims that there is newly discovered evidence that:
(1) creates a substantial or significant possibility that the result may have been different, as that standard has been judicially determined; and
(2) could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Maryland Rule 4–331.

(Emphasis supplied).

That law is implemented by Maryland Rule 4–332. Its essential content is set out, in pertinent part, in subsection (d):

(d) Content of petition. The petition shall be in writing, shall be signed by the petitioner or the petitioner's attorney, and shall state:
(3) each offense of which the petitioner was convicted, the date of the judgment of conviction, and the sentence imposed;
(4) if the judgment was appealed, the case number in the appellate court, a concise description of the

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    ...Special Appeals, however, held a defendant who has pled guilty could not petition for a writ of actual innocence. Yonga v. State , 221 Md.App. 45, 108 A.3d 448, 460 (2015), aff'd 446 Md. 183, 130 A.3d 486, 492 (2016).In discussing freestanding claims of actual innocence, the District of Col......
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