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The battered spouse and the contract killer

gavel2 1 Whether battered spouse syndrome should be a defense in criminal cases has been a controversial issue for many years. Since 1991, a Maryland statute has made such evidence admissible to prove the defendant’s motive or state of mind at the time of the alleged crime. Whether this defense may be available even where the battered spouse hired someone to kill her husband was addressed by a divided Maryland Court of Appeals this week in a case called Karla Louise Porter v. State of Maryland.
Judge Adkins’ opinion for the 4-3 majority indicates a long history of physical and verbal abuse by the defendant’s husband toward her. The defendant testified at trial that eventually she concluded that she knew her husband was going to kill her and she wanted to kill him first. She approached several, eventually hiring someone to kill him at their place of business, with the defendant calling the police to make it sound like a robbery gone bad. She was arrested and charged with first degree murder. At trial, in addition to testifying to the history of abuse, the defendant called two experts who testified that she was suffering from battered woman syndrome including major depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.

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Gang membership and criminal sentencing

gavel2 1 The Trump Administration just recently announced that it was making a priority of prosecuting members of gangs that commit criminal acts, and in particular members of the gang known as MS-13. Maryland’s highest Court just last week addressed whether a sentencing Judge can consider evidence of the defendant’s membership in a gang, even where the underlying crime was not gang related. The case is called Oscar Cruz-Quintanilla v. State of Maryland.
Chief Judge Barbera wrote in the opinion that the defendant was indicted for various crimes related to a home robbery. A jury convicted him of reckless endangerment, wearing/carrying/transporting a handgun, and conspiracy to commit robbery.At sentencing, the prosecution offered for the first time evidence that the defendant had been a member of MS-13. The State called a police Sergeant who testified about and showed pictures of various tattoos on the defendant that showed he belonged to that gang.
The officer said the defendant was a documented gang member since at least 2004. He further testified that members of that gang have to demonstrate loyalty and a willingness to commit violent criminal acts, consistent with its motto translated as “kill, rape, control.”

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Let the punishment fit the plea

gavel2The majority of criminal cases that come to Court result in a plea agreement, rather than an actual trial. In Maryland it is not unusual for the prosecution and defense to agree on the parameters of the plea including potential punishment, and to ask the trial judge to agree to be bound by the terms of the agreement before sentencing. Maryland’s highest court recently addressed what happens when the sentence actually imposed is actually less severe than the minimum agreed to by the defense, in an opinion called Stephanie Smith v. State.
The Court of Appeals’ opinion indicates that the defendant was indicted for insurance fraud, and charged with theft in excess of $10,000. The defense attorney and prosecutor negotiated an agreement for the defendant to plead guilty, with an agreement that the defendant not be sentenced to more than 5 years of jail time with all that suspended except for a minimum of 30 to 90 days incarceration, followed by 5 years probation. The agreement was also that the defendant would pay restitution to the victim of over $47,000.

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When commercial information is public information

gavel2 1 Maryland has a Public Information Act which allows for the release of government documents upon request, similar to the federal Freedom of Information Act. Courts are often called upon to decide whether a citizen is entitled to obtain documents in the government’s possession. Maryland’s highest court last week addressed efforts to obtain commercial information through a MPIA request in a case called Jayson Amster v. Rushern Baker, County Executive for Prince George’s County.

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Remembering Judge Barry A. Hamilton

gavel2 1 The Montgomery County legal community, and his family and many friends, suffered a great loss last week with the passing of Judge Barry A. Hamilton. Judge Hamilton was a judge on Maryland’s District Court since 1996, and perhaps more importantly showed all of us who were his friends and colleagues how to serve the public through the law and live a full personal life as well.

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Get ready for the subpoena for computers

gavel2 1 With the advent of personal computers, the courts have had to develop law on how to apply the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures to police efforts to obtain evidence from computers. How search warrants to obtain such information fit within the constitutional scheme was explored by Maryland’s intermediate appellate court in an opinion issued this week in a case called John Fone v. State of Maryland.

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Obtaining public information from police

gavel2 1 Members of the public seeking access to government records, even in this era of reported leaks of documents, is most commonly obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act or the Maryland equivalent, the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA). The Court of Appeals recently addressed its application to police records in a case called Gary Alan Glass v. Anne Arundel County.

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Heads up for local bicycle law changes

gavel2 1 In recent years as more and more people ride bicycles in the Washington area, laws and regulations have been changing to try to make bicycle riding safer for bicyclists and motorists. Some of the laws vary depending upon the local jurisdiction, so it may be helpful to review those laws.

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Proposed bill on past sex assault evidence fails

gavel2 1 Every legislative session of course includes bills, some that were part of the Governor’s legislative agenda, which are not passed by the General Assembly. Often such proposals are brought back in succeeding years, and this year’s legislative session was no exception. This session saw failure of a proposal that would allow evidence of past sexual crimes under certain circumstances.

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Here comes another parade of partisans

gavel2 1 Courts often struggle in cases involving domestic violence with whether evidence of similar past conduct should be admitted. The Legislature in recent years has considered changes in the law to allow in such evidence. What happens when a criminal defendant puts his own character on trial was explored in a recent opinion from Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals called Harold Eugene Williams v. State.

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