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Patterson v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

September 27, 2016


          Eyler, Deborah S., Arthur, Kenney, James A., III (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.


          ARTHUR, J.

         Robert Amos Patterson, an inmate representing himself, appeals from the denial of a petition for writ of actual innocence, in which he challenged his 1993 convictions for first-degree murder and related handgun offenses. He raises a single question, which we have rephrased as follows: Did the circuit court abuse its discretion in denying the petition for writ of actual innocence on the ground that the unequivocal conclusion by State's expert on comparative microscopic matching did not create a substantial or significant possibility that the result at trial may have been different?[1]

         Finding no abuse of discretion in the circuit court's denial of the petition, we shall affirm.


         For background, we set forth part of the factual summary from this Court's unreported opinion in Patterson's direct appeal:

On July 9, 1992, Rudolph Holland was fatally shot at 49 Clay Street, near Annapolis, Maryland. Several witnesses testified that they saw two black men, one with dark skin, and the other with lighter skin, either in the area of the shooting or running from the scene. Although some were able to identify [Patterson] as the man with the lighter skin, either by a photo array or in court, some were either unable positively to identify [him], or identified someone other than [him] as the man with the lighter skin.
Officer William Hyatt, of the District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department, was the State's principal witness. Officer Hyatt testified that on July 17, 1992, he responded to the area of 24th Street and Benning Road in Northeast Washington, D.C., after receiving a report that suspects in another shooting were in that area. On arriving at the scene, Hyatt observed the three suspects, one of whom was later identified as [Patterson]. According to Officer Hyatt, [Patterson] and the other men fled, and [Patterson] discarded his gun after removing the bullets from it. [Patterson] was apprehended a short time later and placed under arrest for possession of a handgun. About four months later, [Patterson] was arrested by the Annapolis City Police Department for the Clay Street murder. At trial, a firearms examiner from the Federal Bureau of Investigation ["FBI"] testified that the bullet recovered from the victim of the Clay Street shooting had been from the .38 caliber gun dropped in Washington, D.C., by [Patterson] on July 17th.
[Patterson], as well as several other witnesses for the defense, testified that [he] was at a barbecue in Forestville, Maryland, on July 9th. [Patterson] testified that he did not have a gun with him on July 17th and thus could not have discarded a gun before being arrested.

Patterson v. State, No. 1932, Sept. Term 1993, slip op. at 1-2 (filed July 28, 1994) (per curiam).

         Although it was not an issue during Patterson's trial or direct appeal, the testimony of the FBI firearms examiner is now the subject of the instant appeal. That examiner, FBI Special Agent Joseph Williamson, testified, without objection, that the bullet recovered from the murder victim, as well as several other bullets recovered from the Annapolis crime scene, had been fired by the .38 caliber handgun that Officer Hyatt had recovered from Patterson, "to the exclusion of any other firearm in the world."

         During closing argument, the prosecutor relied upon Special Agent Williamson's unequivocal conclusion that the gun recovered from Patterson definitely fired the fatal shots. He told the jury that "the bullet was fired from this gun to the exclusion of all handguns ever made anywhere in the world"; that "[n]o other gun anywhere in the world could have fired those bullets except that one, that gun that was in the hands of Robert Patterson on July 17th"; and that the silver handgun, found in Patterson's possession eight days after the Annapolis murder, "definitely fired the bullets that killed Rudolph Holland[.]"

         The prosecutor repeated these unequivocal assertions in the rebuttal phase of closing argument. There he told the jury that the "gun was analyzed by the F.B.I. and the bullets were tested by the F.B.I., and there's no doubt that the gun and the bullets that Mr. Patterson had in his hand were fired by that gun, the bullets that killed Mr. Holland." He concluded with the assertion that "[y]ou've got Mr. Patterson in Washington, D.C., in possession of the gun that fired the bullets to the exclusion of all other guns in the world that killed Rudolph C. Holland."

         The jury found Patterson guilty of first-degree murder, use of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence, and use of a handgun in the commission of a felony. The circuit court sentenced Patterson to a term of life imprisonment for first-degree murder and a consecutive term of 20 years' imprisonment for one of the handgun convictions.

         In 1993, Patterson filed a motion for new trial on the ground of newly-discovered evidence - an affidavit, executed by an attorney who had investigated his case before trial, which contradicted the testimony of the arresting officer. The circuit court denied his motion, and this Court affirmed in an unreported opinion. Patterson v. State, supra, No. 1932, Sept. Term 1993. Later, Patterson unsuccessfully pursued post-conviction relief. Patterson v. State, No. 25, Sept. Term 1998 (filed June 25, 1998) (per curiam); Patterson v. State, No. 1355, Sept. Term 2010 (filed Mar. 24, 2011) (per curiam).

         In 2013, Patterson, acting through counsel, filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence. That petition alleged that Patterson's trial had been tainted by the admission of testimony, from Special Agent Williamson, regarding the use of comparative bullet-lead analysis ("CBLA"), a technique that has been determined to be unreliable and inadmissible under the Frye-Reed test governing admissibility of scientific evidence in Maryland courts. Clemons v. State, 392 Md. 339, 371 (2006). The circuit court dismissed Patterson's petition without a hearing because a review of the trial transcripts led it to ...

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