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State v. Johnson

Court of Appeals of Maryland

March 27, 2015

STATE OF MARYLAND
v.
DERRELL JOHNSON

Argued: March 6, 2015

Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case Nos. 110169071–110169077.

Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, JJ.

OPINION

Watts, J.

We decide whether the convictions for one or all predicate felonies merge for sentencing purposes with a felony murder conviction[1] where a defendant is convicted of felony murder and multiple predicate felonies.

We hold that, where a defendant is convicted of felony murder and multiple predicate felonies, only one predicate felony conviction merges for sentencing purposes with the felony murder conviction; and, absent an unambiguous designation that the trier of fact intended a specific felony to serve as the predicate felony, the conviction for the felony with the greatest maximum sentence merges for sentencing purposes.

BACKGROUND

The State, Petitioner, charged Derrell Johnson ("Johnson"), Respondent, and three other people with various crimes, including first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery with a dangerous weapon, use of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence or felony, and unlawfully wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun. In the Circuit Court for Baltimore City ("the circuit court"), a jury tried Johnson and his three co-defendants. At trial, the State's theory of the case was that, on April 21, 2009, Johnson, the three co-defendants, and possibly another person kidnapped Qonta Charles Waddell ("Waddell"), put Waddell in a truck, and tried to get money from him. While the truck was parked in an alley in the 3100 block of Windsor Avenue, Waddell attempted to escape, and one of Johnson's co-defendants shot and killed Waddell. The jury convicted Johnson of, among other crimes, felony murder, kidnapping, and robbery.[2]

On January 18, 2012, the circuit court sentenced Johnson, in relevant part, to life imprisonment for felony murder, twenty years' imprisonment concurrent for kidnapping, and ten years' imprisonment concurrent for robbery.[3] Johnson appealed and, in an unreported opinion, the Court of Special Appeals vacated the sentences for the convictions for kidnapping and robbery, determining that the rule of lenity required merger for sentencing purposes of the convictions for kidnapping and robbery with the felony murder conviction because it was unclear which felony was the predicate felony for the felony murder conviction. The Court of Special Appeals also vacated the sentences for the convictions for conspiracy to commit kidnapping and conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon, and affirmed in all other respects.

The State petitioned for a writ of certiorari, raising one issue: "Did the Court of Special Appeals err in merging both the kidnapping and robbery sentences into the felony murder sentence, rather than merging only one of them?" On August 27, 2014, we granted the petition. See State v. Johnson, 439 Md. 694, 98 A.3d 233 (2014).

DISCUSSION

The State contends that the Court of Special Appeals erred in merging for sentencing purposes the kidnapping and robbery convictions with the felony murder conviction. The State argues that, because Maryland law requires one predicate felony for a felony murder conviction, where a defendant is convicted of multiple predicate felonies, only one predicate felony conviction-not all of them-merges for sentencing purposes with the felony murder conviction. The State asserts that the conviction for the predicate felony with the greatest maximum sentence (here, kidnapping) merges for sentencing purposes.

Johnson responds that the Court of Special Appeals was correct in holding that the kidnapping and robbery convictions both merged for sentencing purposes with the felony murder conviction. Johnson contends that it is unclear whether kidnapping, robbery, or both crimes formed the basis for the felony murder conviction, and thus, the required evidence test and Maryland case law require that any ambiguity be resolved in his favor and that the convictions for both kidnapping and robbery merge for sentencing purposes with the felony murder conviction. In addition, Johnson argues that the rule of lenity requires that the convictions for both kidnapping and robbery merge for sentencing purposes with the felony murder conviction, and asserts that the General Assembly has not indicated an intent to permit separate sentences where felony murder is based on multiple predicate felonies. Johnson agrees with the State that, should this Court conclude that the conviction for one predicate felony merges for sentencing purposes with the felony murder conviction, then the conviction for the predicate felony with the greatest maximum sentence (here, kidnapping) should merge for sentencing purposes.

In a reply brief, the State contends that the General Assembly has expressed the view that, although multiple crimes may be predicate felonies, only one predicate felony is required for a felony murder conviction, and thus separate ...


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