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Simms v. Shearin

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

February 24, 2015


For Appellant: Katherine P. Rasin, Paul B. DeWolfe, Public Defender on the brief, Baltimore, MD.

For Appellee: Robert Taylor, Jr., Douglas F. Gansler, Attorney General on the brief, Baltimore, MD.

Meredith, Graeff, Leahy, JJ.


Page 1216

[221 Md.App. 461] Leahy, J.

Approximately ten years after his 1998 conviction of two first-degree murders, Appellant Joseph Simms filed a pro se petition seeking additional DNA testing of clothing introduced at his trial pursuant to Maryland's post-conviction DNA testing statute--Maryland Code (2001, 2008 Repl. Vol.), Criminal Procedure Article (" CP" ) § 8-201--in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.[1] Although the court ultimately granted this [221 Md.App. 462] petition, Appellant's claim tat additional DNA testing would prove his innocence could not be substantiated because the clothing had been destroyed by the Baltimore City Police Department in October 2000 after his direct appeal was final pursuant to then-applicable protocols.

The statute pursuant to which Appellant sought additional DNA testing, CP § 8-201, establishes procedures to challenge whether the State intentionally or willfully destroyed evidence that the State had reason to know contained DNA material.[2] Appellant, however, filed the underlying action separately as a petition for writ of habeas corpus, asserting that he was denied due process of law by the State's destruction of the evidence without notice. The circuit court denied the petition, and Appellant filed a timely appeal.

In Maryland, an appeal may not be taken from a disposition of a petition for writ of habeas corpus unless authorized by one of only four statutes, including CP § 7-107, a provision in the Uniform Post Conviction Procedure Act (" UPPA" ), which is most relevant in this case. CP § 7-107 permits an appeal from habeas corpus disposition when the petition is sought for a purpose other than to challenge the legality of the conviction or sentence. The Court of Appeals has further held that an appeal from a habeas corpus petition lies where the UPPA does not provide a remedy. This prompts the entangled question of whether a habeas petition challenging the State's post-trial destruction of DNA evidence may be appealed under CP § 7-107, particularly when the General Assembly enacted CP § 8-201 to govern and address this scenario. Because Appellant's petition seeks to challenge the legality

Page 1217

of his conviction, and because CP § 8-201 provides appeal rights [221 Md.App. 463] commensurate with habeas relief when DNA evidence is destroyed post-trial, we must dismiss this appeal.


A. Trial

In 1998, Appellant was tried for the double homicide of Peter W. Williams and Belinda M. Baynor in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. At trial, the State produced evidence that Appellant was Ms. Baynor's former boyfriend and that Ms. Baynor had been at the home of Mr. Williams, a family friend, on December 12, 1995. During an interview with police, Appellant admitted that he went to Mr. Williams's residence that evening and that he and Ms. Baynor got into an argument. He also stated that he avoided encountering Mr. Williams while there because Mr. Williams had pulled a gun on him during a previous argument. The following morning, on December 13, the bodies of Ms. Baynor and Mr. Williams were found inside Mr. Williams's house. The residence showed signs of forced entry, and both victims had suffered fatal stab wounds. Appellant was at the crime scene when police responded. He was taken to the police station for questioning, where both the hair on his hand and his right hand tested positive for the presence of blood.

The State also introduced several items of clothing--including a jacket, boots, socks, and a towel--that were found outside in trash bags close to Appellant's aunt's house. The aunt testified that Appellant had arrived at her home, " nervous . . . shaking," during the early morning hours of December 13 asking to stay at her house and that she observed Appellant wearing the clothes found in the trash bag on December 12. One forensic chemist testified at trial that she could not exclude Ms. Baynor as a DNA contributor to the blood found on the left-front jacket and the right shoe, and another forensic chemist testified that the DNA profiles obtained from the blood sample taken from the right-hand sleeve of the jacket matched Mr. Williams' blood sample and that the [221 Md.App. 464] DNA profiles obtained from the left-hand sleeve matched both Mr. Williams and Ms. Baynor's blood samples.

The jury ultimately convicted Appellant of first-degree murder of both victims and related weapon offenses on April 6, 1998. The circuit court imposed two consecutive sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and this Court affirmed Appellant's convictions and sentences in an unreported opinion. Simms v. State, No. 760, Sept. Term 1998 (filed April 28, 1999). Appellant later filed a post-conviction petition, an application for leave to appeal the denial of post-conviction relief, and a motion to reopen his post-conviction proceeding, which were all denied.

B. Petition for Post-Conviction DNA Testing and Related Proceedings

On January 7, 2008, Appellant filed a pro se " motion for new trial and release of evidence of DNA testing," contending that he had a degenerative skin disease on his legs and that, if he was the true perpetrator, his skin cells would have been on the socks and other items. He alleged that the new short tandem repeat (" STR" ) method of DNA testing would prove this contention and establish his innocence. The circuit court summarily denied this motion without a hearing. Appellant appealed to this Court, and we transferred the case to the Court of Appeals pursuant to CP § 8-201 and Maryland Rule 8-132.[3]

Page 1218

The Court of Appeals held that Appellant's pro se motion implicated the post-conviction DNA statute CP § 8-201 and that, when construed liberally, the motion satisfied the pleading requirements of CP § 8-201. Simms v. State, 409 Md. 722, 731-32, 976 A.2d 1012 (2009). Accordingly, the Court vacated the judgment and remanded the case with [221 Md.App. 465] instructions for the court to order the State to file an answer to Appellant's petition. Id. at 734-35.

The circuit court issued an order to that effect on September 14, 2009, and the court subsequently held a hearing on July 16, 2010, ultimately ordering that DNA testing be conducted. On August 2, 2010, Appellant received a letter from his attorney at the University of Baltimore's Clinical Law Offices informing him that the evidence in his case had been sent to the lab for DNA testing.

Approximately seven months later, however, on March 15, 2011, Appellant's attorney sent a letter to the circuit court with an update on the status of the DNA testing. The letter stated:

In a letter dated July 21, 2010, I informed Your Honor, that the cuttings from socks had been received by The Bode Technology Group (TBTG) in Lorton, Virginia. TBTG completed DNA testing on the cuttings from the socks in October 2010. After examining the DNA results and consulting with the Baltimore City Crime Laboratory, it was determined that the cuttings came from the incorrect pair of socks. A further search determined that the socks Mr. Simms requested DNA testing for had been destroyed on October 23, 2000.

(Emphasis added). The letter advised that the State had filed (1) an affidavit from Sergeant Larry Bazzle--Custodian of Records for Evidence Control Unit Policies, Procedures and Protocols--confirming that the items were destroyed on October 23, 2000 pursuant to the then-applicable protocols; and (2) the evidence control unit's chain of custody reports for the items, which reflected destruction of the items. Appellant's attorney mailed a similar letter to Appellant on March 16, 2011, advising him of the destruction of the evidence and ...

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