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State v. Adams-Bey

Court of Appeals of Maryland

August 25, 2016


          Argued: June 2, 2016

         Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County Criminal Case No. 02-K-10-002057 Postconviction Case No. 21, 155

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Battaglia, Lynne A. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.


          Barbera, C.J.

         The Uniform Postconviction Procedure Act ("UPPA") gives the circuit court the discretion to reopen a postconviction proceeding if doing so is "in the interests of justice." Md. Code Ann., Crim. Proc. § 7-104 (2001, 2008 Repl. Vol.).[1] We granted the State's petition for a writ of certiorari in this case to decide whether that same provision likewise grants the Court of Special Appeals the authority to afford the same relief.[2] We conclude easily that it does not. The answer to that particular question, however, does not resolve the matter at hand.

         Rather, we must look to another aspect of the UPPA and, further, review once again advisory only instructions given at the time that they were mandated by Article 23 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. Today, we put to an end finally any question surrounding such instructions and the effect that they have upon an individual's criminal trial. We reaffirm our holding in State v. Waine, 444 Md. 692 (2015), that structural error results from the giving of advisory only instructions that include expressly or by implication the presumption of innocence and the standard of proof. Such error, upon a proper petition for postconviction relief or motion to reopen a postconviction proceeding, entitles an individual to a new trial. We further hold that the Court of Special Appeals is statutorily authorized to review for an abuse of discretion a circuit court's denial of a motion to reopen and may remand the matter to the circuit court with instruction to award appropriate relief if the circuit court abused that discretion.


         Advisory only instructions have a tortured history in this State. They are derived from Article 23, which reads: "In the trial of all criminal cases, the Jury shall be the Judges of Law, as well as of fact, except that the Court may pass upon the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain a conviction." Based upon that constitutional mandate, we required judges under then-Maryland Rule 756b "[i]n every case in which instructions are given to the jury [to] instruct the jury that they are the judges of the law and that the court's instructions are advisory only."

         In 1980, in Stevenson v. State, 289 Md. 167 (1980), we were asked to decide whether Article 23 violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court held that Article 23 was constitutional on its face, reasoning that Article 23 limited the jurors' role as judges of the law only with respect to "disputes as to the substantive 'law of the crime.'" Id. at 180. Although the court's instructions on the law of the crime were advisory, the Court determined that all other instructions on the law were always binding upon the jury. Id. The following year, the Court in Montgomery v. State, 292 Md. 84, 90 (1981), subscribed to that standard by concluding that the trial court erred in advising the jury that all of the court's instructions were advisory. The Montgomery Court reasoned that, because "certain bedrock characteristics" of a criminal trial, such as the presumption of innocence and the standard of proof, "are not 'the law of the crime'" they are likewise "not advisory." Id. at 91.

         We were confronted again with a postconviction case concerning advisory only instructions in State v. Adams, 406 Md. 240 (2008). We reaffirmed the constitutional standard articulated in Stevenson and Montgomery, determined that the standard was not "new law, " and, consequently, concluded that a criminal defendant who had failed to object to the advisory only instruction at trial waived the right to assert it as a ground for postconviction relief. Id. at 256-61.

         In 2012, we decided Unger v. State, 427 Md. 383 (2012). We held that our precedent was clearly wrong in concluding that the Stevenson interpretation of Article 23 was not a new constitutional standard. Id. at 417. As a result, we held that a defendant could challenge his pre-Stevenson conviction through a postconviction proceeding notwithstanding that the defendant did not object to advisory only jury instructions at trial. Id. at 391.

         Just a few years later, we were asked in Waine to overrule Unger as a wrongful departure from principles of stare decisis, and to resurrect what was once the law under Stevenson, Montgomery, and Adams. 444 Md. at 699. We held that Unger was rightly decided and that stare decisis in fact required us to adhere to it. Id. at 700-02. Recognizing that the constitutional standard set forth in Stevenson-that the jury is the judge of the law of the crime and the judge's remaining instructions on the law are binding-was a change in the law that must be applied retroactively; we further held, pertinent to the case now before us, that a motion to reopen based on Unger satisfied the "interests of justice" standard under the UPPA. Id. at 702-03; see Gray v. State, 388 Md. 366, 382-83 n.7 (2005) (concluding that, "[w]hile it is within the trial court's discretion to decide when 'the interests of justice' require reopening, " a "change made in the law that should be applied retroactively" satisfies this standard). We held finally, informed by Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U.S. 275, 281-82 (1993), that an instruction that does not satisfy the new constitutional standard announced by Stevenson and Montgomery constitutes "structural error not susceptible to harmless error analysis." Waine, 444 Md. at 705.

         From this, we can discern that a petitioner whose conviction resulted from a trial in which the jury was given advisory only instructions is entitled to have his postconviction proceedings reopened because such clearly erroneous instructions implicate the petitioner's federal constitutional right to due process. To deny reopening a postconviction proceeding to a petitioner whose conviction rests upon an error of constitutional dimension not subject to a harmless error analysis would necessarily be an abuse of discretion as "well removed from any center mark imagined by the reviewing court and beyond the fringe of what the court deems minimally acceptable." Gray, 388 Md. at 383 (internal quotation marks omitted).


         In 1978, Respondent, James Leslie Adams-Bey, Jr., was convicted by a jury of first degree rape and related offenses in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, and for those crimes he was sentenced to life plus ten years of incarceration. His convictions were affirmed by the Court of Special Appeals and this Court. Adams v. State, 43 Md.App. 528 (1979), aff'd, 289 Md. 221 (1981).

         Respondent petitioned unsuccessfully for postconviction relief in 2010. On August 14, 2012, shortly after we had decided Unger, Respondent moved pro se to reopen his postconviction proceeding on the ground that the jurors at his criminal trial were given advisory only instructions in violation of his constitutional right to due process of law. Respondent argued that those instructions were unconstitutional because the jury was not instructed to follow the court's explanation of the law and the court did not inform the jury of the binding nature of its instructions on the State's burden of proof or the presumption of innocence. The trial court instructed the jury, in relevant part, as follows:

Madam Foreman, Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, at this point in the proceedings I am required to advise you concerning the law in this case. I purposely use the term "advise" since in a criminal case, under Maryland law, you are the judges of both the law and the facts. However, I wish foremost to impress upon you that you should not reach any conclusion from anything that I have said or may say from my tone of voice or manner in saying it, that I have an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the accused. This decision is yours to make, solely, based upon the facts derived from the competent testimony which has been presented for your consideration as applied to the law as you find it to be. In this regard, should court and counsel appear to differ as to [the] law which is applicable, you should apply the law as you find it to be, not as you think it should be. And during this process you are not privileged to make new law.
In arriving at your verdict, you're advised that in this State an accused is entitled throughout the entire proceedings to the presumption of innocence. The burden constantly rests upon the State to convince you beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty of every fact material to the guilt of the accused, including every circumstance that enters into [the] grade or the degree of the crime charged.
You're further advised that the burden is on the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt not only that the offense was committed but also it was the defendant who is the person who committed these offenses.
. . . . And you must be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt of the accuracy of the identification of the defendant before you may convict him.
To warrant a conviction in a criminal case, the charge must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. If you, the jury, consider all the evidence and entertain a reasonable doubt as to the defendant's participation in the crime, you should acquit him. Thus, a defendant is entitled to an acquittal if the alibi evidence taken into consideration with all of the other evidence in the case, raises a reasonable doubt of guilt.
Gentlemen, that concludes the advisory instructions.

(Emphasis added).

         The State argued in response that the court's instructions were not advisory because they did not permit the jury to disregard the law. The State asserted that the instructions given at Respondent's trial "materially differed from the Unger Court's instructions" because the court did not ...

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