Argued: February 9, 2016
Circuit Court for Baltimore County Case No. 03-K-13-002447
Barbera, C.J. Battaglia Greene Adkins McDonald Watts Hotten, JJ. Battaglia, J., joins in judgment only.
This case concerns the worrisome issue of whether, in imposing a sentence, a trial court impermissibly considered the defendant's election not to plead guilty, and, more specifically, whether the trial court impermissibly considered that the defendant declined the "court's offer" of a plea agreement.
We decide: (I) whether, here, the defendant preserved for appellate review the issue of whether the trial court impermissibly considered during sentencing the defendant's decision not to plead guilty; and, if so, (II) whether, here, the record supports the inference that the trial court might have been motivated during sentencing by the impermissible consideration of the defendant's decision not to plead guilty.
We hold that, here: (I) the defendant preserved for appellate review the issue of whether the trial court impermissibly considered during sentencing the defendant's decision not to plead guilty; and (II) the record does not support the inference that the trial court might have been motivated during sentencing by the impermissible consideration of the defendant's decision not to plead guilty.
In the Circuit Court for Baltimore County ("the circuit court"), the State, Respondent, charged Justin Sharp ("Sharp"), Petitioner, with attempted first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree assault, and openly wearing and carrying a dangerous weapon with the intent to injure. These charges arose out of a St. Patrick's Day party during which Sharp allegedly severely beat a young man.
On April 30, 2014, the scheduled trial date, the parties appeared before the circuit court; Sharp was represented by counsel. At that time, the circuit court advised Sharp of the possible sentences that he would face if convicted and that it had offered a "counterproposal" to the State's plea offer. The circuit court advised Sharp as follows:
[C]ount [O]ne of [the] indictment charges you with attempted first[-]degree [premeditated] murder[. T]hat carries a prison term of up to life  imprisonment. Count [T]wo of the indictment charges you with first[-]degree assault . . . . [T]hat carries up to twenty-five years [of] imprisonment. Count [T]hree is [openly] carrying a [dangerous] weapon with [the] intent to injure[. T]hat's three years [of imprisonment.]
The following exchange regarding plea offers occurred:
[CIRCUIT COURT]: [Prosecutor], why don't you place on the record what your offer is[. T]he Court will then place on the record what its offer is.
[PROSECUTOR]: Your Honor, the State had agreed to offer [C]ount [T]wo, which charges [Sharp] with first[-]degree assault. Upon a finding of guilt, the State would recommend a sentence of twenty-five years [of imprisonment], suspend all but ten [years] to serve. It's my understanding that [Sharp] does not wish to take advantage of that offer.
[CIRCUIT COURT]: All right[, ] and the Court has offered a counterproposal of twenty years [of imprisonment], suspending all but the first eight years[. A]nd[, Sharp's counsel], you've had a chance to discuss . . . those offers with [Sharp]?
[SHARP'S COUNSEL]: Yes, I have, Your Honor.
[CIRCUIT COURT]: And what is his election?
[SHARP'S COUNSEL]: He respectfully wishes to proceed to a trial.
[CIRCUIT COURT]: All right[, ] and do you understand the offer, sir?
 SHARP: Yes, sir.
[CIRCUIT COURT]: All right. It is your desire to plead not guilty[.]
On May 1, 2014, a jury trial began. On that day, before the jury panel arrived at the courtroom, the following exchange occurred, during which the circuit court re-extended the "court's offer":
[CIRCUIT COURT]: I'm just going to reiterate the Court's offer to  Sharp. The State is offering you, sir, if you wanted to plead guilty . . . to the second count, [which] is first[-]degree assault, which has a maximum penalty of up to twenty-five years [of imprisonment], the Court is offering you a twenty[-]year sentence, suspending all but the first eight [years] as a cap. You and your attorney would be free to argue for anything that you feel is more appropriate than that. If you wanted a pre-sentence investigation or any other delayed disposition, I would afford you that. But I would guarantee you that I would not give you anything more than eight years of incarceration. Your attorney would be free to argue for anything less. Does [Sharp] understand that offer from the Court?
[SHARP'S COUNSEL]: Well, Your Honor, I apologize to Your Honor. I thought it was twenty [years of imprisonment], suspend all but eight [years]. I didn't realize that was the cap, so I did not explain that to  Sharp.
[CIRCUIT COURT]: Okay. Well, why don't you go ahead and do that.
[SHARP'S COUNSEL]: Okay.
After a pause in the proceedings, the following exchange occurred:
[SHARP'S COUNSEL]: All right. Your Honor, I've had the opportunity to explain that to  Sharp and he, with all due respect to Your Honor, he'd rather go forward by way of a trial.
[CIRCUIT COURT]: Okay. The Court withdraws its offer.
At trial, as a witness for the State, Kristopher Summers ("Summers") testified as follows. On March 17, 2013, Summers and his roommate, Brian Mast ("Mast"), hosted a St. Patrick's Day party, which Sharp and a Raymond Evianiak ("Evianiak") attended. Evianiak, who was "[b]elligerent and drunk[, ]" insulted Sharp, who said that he wanted to kill Evianiak. Sharp punched Evianiak in the face "a couple [of] times[.]" Evianiak did not do anything to defend himself, and passed out on the couch in the living room. Summers went to bed. The next morning, Summers awoke and saw Evianiak, who had a bloody nose. A jacket that Sharp had been wearing was "blood covered" and on the floor, and there was also broken glass on the floor.
As a witness for the State, Mast testified as follows. On the night of March 17, 2013 and the early morning of March 18, 2013, Mast, Summers, Evianiak, and Sharp were drinking at Summers's house. At 1:00 a.m., Evianiak and Sharp got into an oral altercation, and Mast went to bed. At 4:00 a.m., Mast was awakened by the sounds of screaming and bottles being broken. Mast entered the living room, saw broken glass "all over the floor[, ]" and saw blood on the walls, floor, and furniture. Sharp was on top of Evianiak, who was on the floor bleeding. Mast saw Sharp hit Evianiak with a bottle.
As a witness for the State, Evianiak testified as follows. On the night of March 17, 2013 and the early morning of March 18, 2013, Evianiak, Sharp, Summers, and Mast were drinking at Summers's house. Evianiak had between four and six drinks of whiskey and became "very, very intoxicated." Evianiak also smoked two blunts' worth of marijuana and took KlonoPIN pills. At some point, Evianiak was "badly" beaten. Evianiak saw Sharp while he was being beaten, and did not remember anyone else beating him. To the best of Evianiak's memory, he did not try to attack Sharp or otherwise make any aggressive moves toward Sharp. Evianiak passed out and woke up on a couch "covered in blood" and with "rips" on his face and forehead. Evianiak "woke up thinking . . . '[D]id I just fight  Sharp last night?'" Evianiak had briefly dated the mother of Sharp's child, and did not have any problems with anyone else who was at Summers's house. Evianiak called his father, who took him to MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center. Evianiak stayed at that hospital for approximately one week, after which time he was taken to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Evianiak received stitches and had his jaw wired shut for a month and a half. At the time of trial, Evianiak had scars on his face.
As a witness for the State, Jennifer Evianiak ("Jennifer"), Evianiak's sister, testified as follows. Sometime after March 17, 2013, Jennifer saw Evianiak at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center. Jennifer did not recognize Evianiak because "all of his facial features were so covered in blood[.]" Evianiak had multiple gashes on the left side of his face, a large gash under his eye, a large gash on his forehead, and cuts and bruises on his elbow, wrist, and hand. During Jennifer's testimony, the State offered, and the circuit court admitted into evidence, twelve photographs of Evianiak's injuries.
As an expert witness for the State in the field of DNA analysis, Laura Pawloski ("Pawloski"), a forensic biologist, testified as follows. DNA from blood on the living room ceiling in Summers's house matched Evianiak's DNA. DNA from blood on the hallway ceiling, a bedroom ...