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Dionas v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

December 10, 2013

BAGADA DIONAS
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

Argued January 10, 2012.

Barbera, C.J. Harrell, Greene, Adkins, [*] Bell, Wilner, Alan M. (Retired, Specially Assigned) Cathell, Dale R. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

OPINION

Bell, C. J. (Retired).

Bagada Dionas, the petitioner, was convicted, by a jury, in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City of multiple counts of second degree murder, first degree assault, use of a handgun in the commission of a felony or crime of violence, openly carrying a dangerous weapon, and conspiracy to commit first degree murder. He was sentenced to an aggregate sentence of life imprisonment plus 170 years. The petitioner appealed his convictions to the Court of Special Appeals, arguing, inter alia, that the trial court erred in prohibiting his cross-examination of a State's witness regarding that witness' expectation of leniency in a separate pending case should he testify against the petitioner.[1] The Court of Special Appeals agreed that the trial court erred in that regard. It, however, concluded that the error was harmless, and affirmed the judgment of the Circuit Court. Dionas v. State, 199 Md.App. 483, 23 A.3d 277 (2011). For the reasons provided below, we now reverse the judgment of the intermediate appellate court.

The charges with which the petitioner was indicted, and of which he was convicted, arose from a shooting incident that occurred on the evening of July 15, 2007, in a field on Radecke Avenue in Baltimore, Maryland, during the course of which two men, Wayne White and Maurice White, were shot and killed. Several persons, one of whom was Sean White ("Mr. White"), the brother of Wayne White, one of the victims, witnessed the incident and testified at the defendant's trial on behalf of the State.

Following the shooting incident, but prior to the petitioner's trial, Mr. White was sentenced to probation before judgment for charges of attempted distribution of an illegal substance. While on probation, he was charged with, and plead guilty to, possession of a firearm by a minor, receiving a six-month sentence. As a result of his firearm conviction, Mr. White was charged with violation of probation and, therefore, remained incarcerated on that charge even after he had completed his six-month sentence. He sought a continuance of the violation of probation ("VOP") hearing in order to testify at the petitioner's trial, and he also requested to be released on home detention pending that hearing. The presiding judge in the VOP case granted his request.

Prior to the petitioner's trial, the State made a motion in limine to bar the petitioner from questioning any of its witnesses regarding prior arrests. Defense counsel objected, arguing that Mr. White had an agreement for leniency with his VOP judge relevant to Mr. White's potential motive for testifying. The petitioner's counsel emphasized that, unlike most individuals, Mr. White had been released pending his VOP hearing, and that that same judge was continuing Mr. White's hearing until after he testified in the petitioner's trial. The State maintained that there was no plea deal, that Mr. White had requested a release from jail pending a VOP hearing because he was a witness to his brother's murder and he was scared in jail. The court agreed with the State that there was no evidence of any quid-pro-quo between Mr. White and the VOP judge, and that, due to his involvement in the petitioner's trial, Mr. White was released because it would be safer for him to be home.

The petitioner's subsequent efforts to cross-examine Mr. White with respect to his motivation to testify were rejected. The trial court ultimately ruled that, although Mr. White and the VOP judge had an agreement, [2] that agreement was merely that Mr. White testify; she did not tell Mr. White "directly or indirectly that he had to testify one way or another, " "testify truthfully" or "in a manner consistent with the conviction of the defendant." Therefore, the trial court reasoned that there was no deal that Mr. White testify "one way or the other[, ] [o]nly that he testify, " and any questioning about the agreement between Mr. White and the VOP judge would be irrelevant.[3]

Subsequent to Mr. White's testimony, the petitioner renewed his request to cross-examine Mr. White concerning his motivation to testify, noting that the question was not whether the State had struck a bargain with Mr. White, but whether Mr. White subjectively believed that the would receive a benefit at his VOP hearing as a result of testifying on the State's behalf at the petitioner's trial, a belief bolstered by the fact that he was released to home detention prior to his VOP hearing. As to this argument, the court noted that Mr. White had given a statement to the police regarding the petitioner's case before he appeared in front of the VOP judge.

After a three and a half day trial, the jury began deliberations, which lasted for five and one half days. On the first day of deliberations, the jury requested further instruction on first and second degree murder. On the second day of deliberations, the jury submitted two notes. The first asked: "We have reviewed each indictment individually. We have been unable to reach a unanimous decision on any single count. What should we do at this point?" The second stated: "We the jury have deliberated the verdict to the best of our knowledge and can only agree on two counts." The court responded by explaining that it is not uncommon for a jury to believe early on in deliberations that a unanimous verdict cannot be reached, and encouraged the jury to "consult with one another and deliberate with a view towards reaching an agreement." On the fourth day of deliberations, the jury submitted a question regarding whether the use of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence counts related specifically to each of the enumerated victims, which the trial court went on the record to answer. Finally, on the fifth day of deliberations, the trial court received two more notes from the jury: "What are the consequences when some jurors are not cooperating with deliberations, blatantly disregarding the law of the land, and the evidence presented in this case, " and, from Juror #9, "I did not talk to no one about this case. I am being pick[ed] out. Some one that I do not know ask [sic.] me if we came to a verdict. My verdict did not match their verdict it made the count 11 to 1, on more than one count." The court responded by reminding the jurors that they swore an oath to deliberate fairly and impartially and to apply the law as the judge explained it to them. The court also gave the jury a long instruction addressing juror safety and determined that the question put to Juror #9 was "innocuous, and that the communication should not be held against the State or the defendant in any way." In addition, on the fifth day of deliberations the court asked the jury: "Do you believe that continued deliberations will result in a unanimous verdict?, " to which the jury responded, "So far in our deliberations, some days we have gotten closer to a unanimous verdict and some days we have gotten further away. It is difficult to determine whether more time to deliberate will result in a unanimous verdict." On the sixth day of deliberations, the jury returned its verdict.

Before the Court of Special Appeals, as we have seen, the petitioner raised the issue of whether the trial court erred by prohibiting the petitioner's cross-examination of Mr. White regarding his expectation of leniency in his VOP case. The Court of Special Appeals agreed that it did:

"In the present case, the defense similarly sought to question [Mr. White] regarding whether he had any hope that he would receive leniency in his VOP hearing as a result of his testimony in appellant's case. Given that [Mr. White]'s VOP hearing has been postponed for him to "complete cooperation" in appellant's case, and that the VOP judge had granted bail pending the hearing and stated that the parties would bring to her attention at the sentencing hearing his participation as a witness in appellant's case, there was a sufficient factual foundation to support the requested cross-examination. The trial court erred in finding otherwise and in restricting cross-examination of [Mr. White] regarding any expectation of leniency in return for his testimony."

Dionas, 199 Md.App. at 509, 23 A.3d at 292. The intermediate appellate court, however, found the error to be harmless. The court, purporting to apply the harmless error test enunciated in Dorsey v. State, 276 Md. 638, 350 A.2d 665 (1976), with a focus on factors it had previously recognized in Owens v. State, 161 Md.App. 91, 111, 867 A.2d 334, 345–46 (2005) (quoting Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673, 684, 106 S.Ct. 1431, 1438, 89 L.Ed.2d 674, 686–87 (1986)), opined:

"Whether such an error is harmless in a particular case depends upon a host of factors, all readily accessible to reviewing courts. These factors include the importance of the witness' testimony in the prosecution's case, whether the testimony was cumulative, the presence or absence of evidence corroborating or contradicting the testimony of the witness on material points, the extent of cross-examination otherwise permitted, and, of course, the overall strength of the prosecution's case."

Dionas, 199 Md.App. at 510, 23 A.3d at 292–93 (internal citations omitted). Applying these factors, the Court of Special Appeals noted that the State's case against the petitioner was strong. It reasoned, while Mr. White's identification of the petitioner was important, it was cumulative; the petitioner was otherwise given ample opportunity to cross-examine Mr. White; and the impact of the petitioner's proffered cross-examination would have been minimal. Dionas, 199 Md.App. at 513, 23 A.3d at 294. The court explained:

"At oral argument, counsel for appellant argued that, despite the strong evidence against appellant, and the limited impeachment value of the excluded evidence, the error was not harmless. In support, counsel pointed to the length of deliberations and that the jurors had indicated on the second day of deliberations that they could not reach a verdict. Neither appellant nor the State cited any cases addressing whether lengthy deliberations or a note such as that sent by the jury here were relevant to a finding of harmless error.
"Addressing first the length of deliberations, courts have disagreed on whether that fact has any bearing in a harmless error analysis, in particular with respect to an analysis of the strength of the State's case. Compare United States v. Williams, 212 F.3d 1305, 1311 n.10 (D.C. Cir.) (courts should "hesitate to connect the length of deliberations with the strength of the government's case"), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 1056, 121 S.Ct. 666, 148 L.Ed.2d 568 (2000), with United States v. Velarde-Gomez, 269 F.3d 1023, 1036 (9th Cir. 2001) (en banc) ("Longer jury deliberations 'weigh against a finding of harmless error' because lengthy deliberations suggest a difficult case."); United States v. Varoudakis, 233 F.3d 113, 126 (1st Cir. 2000) (same). Even the courts that have looked to the length of deliberations, however, have noted that a lengthy deliberation may result, "not because of indecision, but [from] 'a diligent and conscientious attempt to evaluate the evidence, and to verify the testimony of different witnesses and to come to a careful and reasoned decision." Varoudakis, 233 F.3d at 126-27 (quoting Clark v. Moran, 942 F.2d 24, 32–33 (1st Cir. 1991)).
"In the present case, the jury deliberated for a period of time approximately five days. Although this is a lengthy period of time, it was in the context of a trial that spanned four days and involved 33 different counts, involving different legal theories. During the deliberation period, the jury sent out multiple notes, asking for definitions of different offenses, clarification regarding the elements of a crime, and information about specific evidence that was introduced. Under these circumstances, the length of deliberations reflects a conscientious attempt to reach a reasonable decision, and it does not weigh against a finding of harmless error.
"Nor do we find that the two jury notes indicating difficulty reaching a unanimous verdict weigh against a finding of harmless error. Both notes were written on the second day of deliberations, the first after less than six hours of deliberations. And, as indicated, the subsequent deliberations, including the notes requesting more guidance regarding the nature of the crimes charged, show a diligent attempt to reach a careful decision.
"Given the strong evidence against the appellant, and the limited impact that the cross-examination likely would have had, we hold that the court's restriction of cross-examination, although error, was harmless. Appellant ...

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