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Burris v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

October 23, 2013


Barbera, C.J. Harrell Battaglia Greene Adkins McDonald McAuliffe, John F. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.


Battaglia, J.

In the present case, Shelton Burris, [1] was convicted of the first degree murder of Hubert Dickerson, Jr., and a related charge, after a jury trial in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. Burris, according to the State's theory of the case, was a "hit man" for the Black Guerilla Family gang ("BGF") and was ordered by his gang boss, "Bam, "[2] to kill Hubert Dickerson, Jr., because Mr. Dickerson owed Bam money.

The State moved, prior to trial, [3] to introduce the testimony of Sergeant Dennis Workley of the Baltimore City Police Department, proffered as a gang expert, who would identify Burris as a member of BGF, and testify that BGF was a "violent" gang that would commit murder on the basis of a debt owed to one of its members: "This is what [BGF] do[es]. You owe them money. They're going to go out and kill you . . . ." According to the State, Sergeant Workley's testimony was necessary to establish Burris's membership in BGF and, in turn, Burris's motive: that he killed Mr. Dickerson "because that's what he was ordered to do" by Bam, his BGF gang boss.[4] The State further proffered that Sergeant Workley's testimony was necessary were witnesses to recant pre-trial statements implicating Burris at trial, because the State intended to have Sergeant Workley testify as to "what BGF is, what they do. They extort."

Burris's counsel, in response, argued that Sergeant Workley should not be permitted to testify, because "every single witness in this case has known [Burris] for years. So, this isn't a question about identity[, ]" and that gang evidence was not relevant to motive:

The motive . . . is that supposedly they're alleging that Mr. Burris shot Mr. Dickerson because Mr. Dickerson owed Bam money. Not that it had anything to do with the fact that either of these gentlemen may or may not have been in the organization . . . . All the State wants to do is taint the water in this case and taint [Burris] and say, okay, he's a gang member.

The court, thereafter, ruled the evidence admissible to prove motive based upon its understanding of the State's proffer:

All right. Based upon my understanding at this time and in what was presented to me before, I am prepared to allow this information to come in. I believe that it is relevant in that the theory of the State's case as all parties seem to consider that the murder was as a result of a debt that was owed, but why the Defendant is the person who did the shooting because a debt was owed to Bam involves the question of their relationship. That their relationship that the State is prepared to prove involves the Black G[ue]rilla[5] Family - - I believe makes that relevant evidence.[6]

The State, at trial, called several crime scene witnesses and the medical examiner, in addition to three fact witnesses who the State indicated, prior to trial, would likely recant. One of these witnesses allegedly told investigators that Burris was a "hit man" for Bam, that Bam told Burris to kill the victim, that he heard Burris bragging to Bam about shooting a man, and that Bam responded to Burris's bragging by stating "[t]hat's my boy, straight G[ue]rilla"; another allegedly had told investigators that she overheard Burris state that he had shot a person subsequent to Mr. Dickerson's murder because "he owed Bam some money"; and the third allegedly had stated to detectives he had witnessed Burris shoot the victim and that Burris did so over a debt.[7] Two of these witnesses allegedly identified Burris and Bam as members of BGF. At trial, all three witnesses—Austin Lockwood, Ashley Sparrow, and Dominic Falcon—testified that they either did not remember or fabricated their pre-trial statements to investigators implicating Burris and, accordingly, recordings of their pre-trial statements were played for the jury pursuant to Rule 5-802.1(a).[8]

The State then called Sergeant Workley and, prior to his taking the stand, a bench conference ensued during which the State identified various photographs of Burris's tattoos that it intended to present to Sergeant Workley for the purpose of having the Sergeant explain their relationship to Burris's membership in BGF. Burris's counsel objected to Sergeant Workley testifying as to Burris's tattoos, "because the[] tattoos [were] not relevant to th[e] case in any, in any way whatsoever." The court ruled, however, that Sergeant Workley would be permitted to testify as to the substance of Burris's tattoos insofar as they were related to his opinion that Burris was a member of BGF:

As these [tattoos] have an appearance of prejudice because there are some nasty things said, but just as if he had decided as he may someday to have tattooed I killed Hubert Dickerson, that if he chose to have it written on him may come back to be evidence against him at some point. What I'm going to do is allow the State after establishing the S[e]rge[a]nt's expertise to go through pictures [of Burris's tattoos] one at a time and ask if there is anything in the picture that you see that is of significance in your determination on this question of your expert opinion. If they are, then I'll allow him to say what it is. If, in any of these pictures he says, I don't know what it is, it doesn't mean anything, we can take that picture out and it's, it's useless, but we have to understand that I am expecting the Detective S[e]rge[a]nt to say that within the world of gang orientation, marks are left in places, on walls, on buildings, on cars, on people so that other members of their own gang and others gangs understand what they're saying. If the Detective S[e]rge[a]nt can interpret that for us, then he can interpret it.

Sergeant Workley was then qualified as an expert "in the field of gangs, gang membership, gang insignia, gang ranking, [and] gang identification." Burris's counsel interposed numerous objections during Sergeant Workley's testimony, [9] which began by explaining gang practices in general:

[STATE'S ATTORNEY]: [O]nce in a gang, can members quit whenever they want to?
[SERGEANT WORKLEY]: Usually not.
[STATE'S ATTORNEY]: And what is a phrase like blood in, blood out mean?
[SERGEANT WORKLEY]: They're a blood member for life.
[STATE'S ATTORNEY]: And does the concept of respect, the word respect have a special significance in the world of gang, criminal street gangs?
[SERGEANT WORKLEY]: Absolutely one hundred percent. That's their code, their code, their creed they live by. They have to be respected.
[STATE'S ATTORNEY]: And how does a gang member gain respect in their membership . . . ? . . . Generally speaking.
[SERGEANT WORKLEY]: Generally speaking, by committing crimes.
[STATE'S ATTORNEY]: Does turf or territory have special significance in the gang culture?
[STATE'S ATTORNEY]: And what about the term payback?
[SERGEANT WORKLEY]: Just like any other criminal enterprise, if you do something against, you know, even going as far back as prohibition, when you did something against somebody else it was always pay back for whatever you did and whatever happens. There's always consequences to your actions and actions always have consequences.

Sergeant Workley further testified about the history, hierarchy, organization, and practices of BGF:

[STATE'S ATTORNEY]: Can you tell me . . . briefly what the Black G[ue]rilla family is?
[SERGEANT WORKLEY]: BGF started out, they still are a prison gang. They're a prominent prison gang in the State of Maryland. They control most of the jails in the State of Maryland. They control what goes on inside and they get information that happens on the outside and generally inside speaking, they control the narcotic trade inside, inside the jails and the inflow of information going back and forth.
[STATE'S ATTORNEY]: Well, let's break it down. Does BGF have a constitution?
[SERGEANT WORKLEY]: Yes, they do.
[STATE'S ATTORNEY]: Or a creed. Can you explain ...

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