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Shiflett v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

September 28, 2016


          Nazarian, Reed, Zarnoch, Robert A. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.


          Nazarian, J.

         After Katie Hadel was found stabbed to death in the bathtub of her apartment on February 5, 2013, Jeffrey Shiflett was charged with first-degree murder, first-degree assault, first-degree burglary, third-degree burglary, carrying a weapon openly with intent to injure, and two counts of second-degree assault. At trial in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, Mr. Shiflett conceded that he killed her, and the contested issue was whether Mr. Shiflett, who has been diagnosed with multiple psychiatric disorders, was guilty of first- or second-degree murder. Ultimately, evidence of Mr. Shifflet's disorders was not permitted, and Mr. Shifflet was deemed competent after a mid-trial competency hearing. But because of Mr. Shiflett's disruptive behavior in and around the courtroom, the court ordered him restrained with a stun cuff during the proceedings, and when he refused, excluded him from the courtroom unless he agreed to wear it. As a result, much of the trial was conducted in his absence.

         On appeal, Mr. Shiflett claims the circuit court abused its discretion by ordering him to wear a stun cuff as a condition of being present in the courtroom. In addition, he argues that the court erred by failing to strike the State's notice of intent to seek a sentence of life without parole; by excluding evidence of Mr. Shiflett's psychological profile; by concluding that Mr. Shiflett was competent to stand trial; and by denying his motion to dismiss the burglary count. We affirm his convictions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Mr. Shiflett and Ms. Hadel were childhood friends who became romantically involved in 2007. At that time, both Mr. Shiflett and Ms. Hadel used heroin and, as we will explain in more detail below, Mr. Shiflett suffered from several untreated mental illnesses. After Mr. Shiflett and Ms. Hadel participated in a robbery and Ms. Hadel was caught on a security camera using a stolen credit card, both were placed on probation. Mr. Shiflett later violated probation and was imprisoned for the full five-year sentence.

         While in prison, and until his release in 2012, Mr. Shiflett frequently wrote threatening letters to Ms. Hadel, Ms. Hadel's mother, and Ms. Hadel's husband, Craig Gordon. In one letter, dated May 25, 2009 and addressed to Ms. Hadel, Mr. Shiflett threatened her with a graphically violent death if she didn't comply with his wishes:

I'm in prison and not a day goes buy [sic] to where I don't think about you putting me hear [sic] in this place. It[']s all good why because they can't keep me forever one day I will leave this place. When I do I will come looking for you and I will find you. Where ever you might be I won't give up until I find you . . . You better hope you are telling me things I want to hear. If not I will loose [sic] my mind and cut your fucking head off.

         Another letter, dated March 10, 2010, addressed Ms. Hadel as "Dear Whore" and stated, "Nobody sends me to prison and gets away with it. It's not going to be hard to find you."

         When he was released in December 2012, Mr. Shiflett moved in with his father in Annapolis. Mr. Shiflett's father testified that he believed his son's mental condition had worsened in prison, where he'd spent a year-and-a-half in solitary confinement. He described his son's demeanor at the time as highly anxious, that he was unable to sleep or eat and was obsessed with Ms. Hadel. Mr. Shiflett continued to place phone calls to Ms. Hadel and her mother, as well as to write about Ms. Hadel on his Facebook page.

         Mr. Shiflett disappeared from his father's house around February 1, 2013. And he followed through with his threat to find Ms. Hadel: he walked from Annapolis to Reisterstown and, by February 3, 2013, was camped out in the woods behind her apartment, waiting for her husband, Mr. Gordon, to leave. On the night of February 5, Mr. Shiflett broke into Ms. Hadel's apartment and he encountered Mr. Gordon's twelve-year old daughter, D, [1] lying in bed with her laptop. He screamed "Where the F is Katie?" at D, then dragged her down the hall toward Ms. Hadel's bedroom. He let go once he spotted Ms. Hadel near the bathroom, and he pulled out a knife. D escaped to a neighbor's house to get help, but by the time police arrived, Ms. Hadel had been stabbed sixteen times and was lying face down, "lifeless, " in the bathtub. Two other children, a one-year-old and a three-year-old, were found in the apartment when police arrived; both were unharmed.

         Mr. Shiflett was charged with first-degree murder, first-degree assault, first-degree burglary, third-degree burglary, carrying a weapon openly with intent to injure, and two counts of second-degree assault. He conceded that he was responsible for Ms. Hadel's murder, but disputed that the murder was premeditated. To that end, the defense attempted to introduce evidence of Mr. Shiflett's untreated mental illnesses to rebut the State's contention that he premeditated Ms. Hadel's murder, and when that failed, to demonstrate that Mr. Shiflett was not competent to stand trial. After a mid-trial hearing, the circuit court found him competent.

         Before and throughout trial, Mr. Shiflett behaved in a disruptive and threatening manner. He directed his displeasure primarily, although not exclusively, toward the judge and the prosecutor; he addressed both using profane adaptations of their names. He was permitted to sit in the courtroom unrestrained during jury selection, but after Mr. Shiflett tried to force his way into the judge's chambers, the court ordered him to wear a stun cuff, [2]a device worn around the ankle that administers an electric shock, if he wanted to remain in the courtroom for the trial. He refused to wear it, and the trial continued while he remained in the courthouse lock-up, with a video and audio hook-up that allowed him to see and hear the proceedings.

         The jury convicted Mr. Shiflett of first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder, and the remaining counts, except for one count of second-degree assault. At the sentencing hearing, he moved for jury sentencing, but the court denied his motion and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This timely appeal followed. We will provide more facts as appropriate to the discussion below.


         Mr. Shiflett presents five questions on appeal, which we address in a slightly different order.[3] First, he argues that the circuit court abused its discretion by ordering him to wear a stun cuff, then by proceeding with trial in his absence when he refused to wear it. Second, he argues that he was entitled to have a jury determine whether he should be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and that his life sentence, administered by the court rather than by the jury, is unconstitutional. Third, Mr. Shiflett argues that the trial court erred by refusing to admit testimony regarding his psychological profile, and fourth, in its decision that he was competent to stand trial. Finally, Mr. Shiflett argues that the court erred by refusing to dismiss the first-degree burglary count.

         A. The Circuit Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion In Requiring Mr. Shiflett To Wear A Stun Cuff To Remain In The Courtroom.

         Mr. Shiflett argues first that the circuit court erred by ordering him to wear a stun cuff as a condition of remaining in the courtroom, then by allowing the trial to proceed in his absence when he refused to wear it. In-court physical restraints are inherently prejudicial to criminal defendants in that they can diminish the accused's ability to mount a meaningful defense as well as his ability to communicate with his lawyer, Deck v. Missouri, 544 U.S. 622, 631 (2005), and no reported Maryland decision has considered whether and under what circumstances a stun cuff can serve as a courtroom restraint during a jury trial. We begin, then, with a closer look at Mr. Shiflett's behavior, the range of options available to the trial court, and the court's responses.

         Mr. Shiflett's statements and conduct had raised serious security concerns for the court long before trial. In the weeks leading up to jury selection, he'd taken to writing the presiding judge letters that he sent to her home. We decline to memorialize the text of those letters in the Maryland Appellate Reports-trust us when we say that their contents were thoroughly inappropriate and venomously vulgar.

         It was the Sheriff who first recommended placing Mr. Shiflett in a stun cuff after listening to a phone call Mr. Shiflett placed to his father from prison. In that particular call, Mr. Shiflett reacted to the court's ruling that he would not be permitted to introduce psychiatric testimony; the call contained "a tremendous amount of profanity and some rather horrific statements" about Ms. Hadel. Defense counsel objected to the Sheriff's recommendation, and after learning that Mr. Shiflett had not made any direct threats against the court or the prosecutor, the court declined to order Mr. Shiflett to wear the stun cuff in the courtroom:

As counsel knows in this case, Mr. Shiflett has written to me on many occasions. Even though I keep writing back to him telling him not to write to me, he continues to write to me. And in many of his letters, there was never a direct threat against me or the Prosecutor-or either Prosecutor, but certainly language that this Court would consider to be highly inappropriate, vulgar and heated in terms [you would] describe a letter as heated. And this Court never felt in any way that there was a threat against her cause if I did, I would have brought that to the attention frankly-of the Sheriff's office and of the State and decisions would have been made based on that.
So considering the factors, being aware of the security necessary for this trial . . . I'm not going to order that the ankle cuff be put in. I appreciate why the Sheriff's office wanted to put it in. I think in this particular case, I don't believe it will [be] necessary. If at any time I feel that it becomes necessary, then I will modify my order.

         Jury selection then went forward as scheduled, and Mr. Shiflett was disruptive throughout that process. He made "constant remarks, often time inappropriate remarks, often vulgar remarks, often obscene remarks, for which the Court either tolerated . . . or admonished him to stop speaking." Still, jury selection continued, and at that point the court elected not to revise its ruling on the stun cuff. But the next morning, before the courtroom day got under way, Mr. Shiflett attempted to break free from the guards and enter the judge's chambers. A scuffle ensued as sheriffs tried to restrain him; they were eventually able to move him away from the judge, but not before he spit in a sheriff's face:

This morning at ten to ten as Mr. Shiflett . . . was being brought to begin the trial, he attempted to-I was in chambers and I heard him call out my name, my first name, several times, and saying [the Judge's name], which is my first name, and then he attempted to enter my chambers. At that point, the sheriffs-and there was three or four of them I believe that were with him at that time-moved him away from my chambers, put him up against the wall and attempted to calm him down and deter him from trying to enter my chambers in what appeared to be his effort to want to talk to me.
They then moved him over into the courtroom and tried to get him to sit down. A scuffle occurred, and they were unable to really secure him, continued to become more agitated and resistive in his behavior. After that the sheriffs then took him back into the lockup, and I believe [defense counsel] came around as well in an effort to calm down Mr. Shiflett.
I subsequently had a chambers conference with counsel, indicated my concern for courtroom security. I also had an opportunity to talk to the sheriffs since I did not witness all of the behavior of Mr. Shiflett. I only heard him screaming out and calling my first name. In further talking to the sheriffs, they indicated to me not only were they hav[ing] difficulty securing him, but that he also spit at one of the sheriffs. And then they attempted again to push him down the hallway to try and secure his attendance into the courtroom.
I told counsel in chambers based on his behavior this morning, that it was this Court's intent and concern for courtroom security and his highly agitated state that I was going to order the sheriffs to place a cuff on him that would administer a shock if he acted up. And that was this Court's decision. It was decided at that time to put all this on the record, and then go back to talk to Mr. Shiflett.

         The court went on to explain that she wanted to place Mr. Shiflett in a stun cuff because she thought "his rights are more secure and the appearance to the jury would be less intrusive with the cuff than with six sheriffs standing around him."

         The judge and counsel then proceeded to Mr. Shiflett's holding cell, where the court (with a court reporter present) gave Mr. Shiflett the opportunity to return to the courtroom if he agreed to wear the stun cuff:

THE COURT: The purpose of this hearing, Mr. Shiflett . . . - we are in lockup, this hearing is being held in lockup-is based on your behavior this morning.
* * *
So based on your behavior, I have determined that the only way to maintain courtroom security, which is my job, is to have the cuff on you.
Now, you can choose not to use the cuff, not to wear the cuff. And if you choose to do that, then you will be waiving your right to be in the courtroom. You have an absolute right to be in the courtroom and participate in the proceedings. I have the absolute right as the Judge to determine courtroom security.
It is my decision, based on your conduct this morning, that you wear the cuff.
[MR. SHIFLETT]: All right-
THE COURT: By not complying with my order, you are waiving your right under [Md. Rule] 4-231. So I wanted to advise you of your right to be present[.]

         Amidst the confusion that followed, Mr. Shiflett responded that "I'm not going to wear that fucking cuff, " and the court explained the implications of his decision:

THE COURT: So as a result of your refusal to comply with my order, and I'm doing this based on your behavior this morning and this Court's concern about courtroom security, then you will be waiving your right to be present at trial, and the trial will continue-
[MR. SHIFLETT]: And I am not waiving my right to be present at trial. Put the microphone right here. I am not waiving my right to be present at the trial today. I want to be in the courtroom, but I'm not going to be treated like I'm some fucking kind of animal. Thank you.
[MR. SHIFLETT]: Now, let me say something about this bracelet.
THE COURT: So the trial-you understand the trial will continue without your presence.
[MR. SHIFLETT]: I don't really care about that. That's fine.
* * *
THE COURT: Okay. All right. So I'm going to leave you in your cell, and every time we have a break, I'm going to revisit this issue with you. So you will continue to have the right to consult with a lawyer. I am not going to have you sent back to the jail. We will continue to explore the option for you to come back into court.

         From there, the trial continued in Mr. Shiflett's absence. During the luncheon recess that same day, the judge, the prosecutor, and defense counsel returned to Mr. Shiflett's cell, and Mr. Shiflett maintained his refusal to wear the stun cuff in the courtroom:

[MR. SHIFLETT]: I ain't seeing that nasty bitch.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: We're about to go on the record.
[MR. SHIFLETT]: Woo-hoo.
THE COURT: All right. Mr. Shiflett, we are back-
THE COURT: We are back-
[MR. SHIFLETT]: -baby [Judge][4] Hey, babe.
THE COURT: We are back on the record-
[MR. SHIFLETT]: Hey babe.
THE COURT: I am Judge [last name], Mr. Shiflett.
[MR. SHIFLETT]: You're baby [Judge] to me.
THE COURT: (Inaudible) address me in that way.
[MR. SHIFLETT]: You're baby [Judge].
THE COURT: We are back on the record-
[MR. SHIFLETT]: I have to think up a nickname for (inaudible).
THE COURT: -in the State of Maryland versus Jeffrey Shiflett, case Number K-13-1295.
[MR. SHIFLETT]: Is [Prosecutor] for the State?
THE COURT: We are now present-I am present, [defense counsel and the State] are here as well-
[MR. SHIFLETT]: Oh, shit.
THE COURT: -along with my court clerk.
[MR. SHIFLETT]: Oh, shit.
THE COURT: I'm here to advise you of where we are in the proceeding and of your right to go back into the court if you choose to. We have concluded with three or four witnesses-
[MR. SHIFLETT]: And I should have been there so I can fucking hear what they have to say about me, and so I could have told me [sic] attorney some fucking questions to ask them that I might thought that was relevant to this case, and I was denied my constitutional right, but we all know they don't give a fuck about people's rights around here.
[MR. SHIFLETT]: Ain't that right [Prosecutor]?
[MR. SHIFLETT]: Yes, ...

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