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Taneja v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

November 30, 2016


          Woodward, Graeff, Sharer, J. Frederick (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.


          Sharer, J.

         Preeta Gabba was shot three times at close range, resulting in her death, while walking in Germantown, Montgomery County, at about 7:45 on the morning of October 12, 2013. Her former husband, Baldeo Taneja, and his wife, Raminder Kaur, were charged in Gabba's murder. They were tried together and convicted by a jury of first-degree premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree premeditated murder, and use of a handgun in the commission of a felony.[1]

In his appeal, Taneja raises a single issue:
Whether the trial court violated Taneja's due process right to present a defense by excluding several defense witnesses who were present in the court and ready to testify concerning the defense's theory of the crime[.]

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

         I. FACTS

         The State's theory of prosecution was that Taneja and Kaur conspired to kill Gabba, and that it was Kaur who fired the fatal shots. The State's case was largely circumstantial and centered on motive and opportunity. The State produced evidence that the gun used to kill Gabba was found in the rear seat of Taneja and Kaur's car 30 hours after the murder, and that Taneja had purchased the gun five weeks earlier. The defense argued lack of criminal agency and, more particularly, that others had motive to kill Gabba.

         Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, the following was adduced at Taneja's trial.

         Gabba and Taneja were married in India in 2002, and continued to live there for several years. In 2006, Taneja moved to the United States; Gabba followed in 2009. They lived in the Germantown area, but not together. Two years later, Gabba and Taneja divorced, and soon afterward Taneja married Kaur and moved to Nashville, Tennessee. Gabba remained in the Germantown area and moved to a condominium on Crystal Rock Drive.

         On the morning of Gabba's murder, she was en route to her job, walking from her home to the bus stop, as she had done regularly for the preceding three years. Three eyewitnesses testified to the events at the murder scene.

         Elena Komarova was driving her teenage son to his school in the 19700 block of Crystal Rock Drive, a residential area, when they heard several gunshots. Komarova slowed her car and saw two women ahead of her. One of the women, later identified as Gabba, started crossing the street in the middle of the block, while the other woman was close behind her. As Gabba fell into the street in front of Komarova's car, the second woman ran away. Komarova and her son described the woman who ran away, in part, as wearing a bright orange scarf. They initially described both women as African-American, although, at trial, both were less positive about their race. Neither saw anyone else in the immediate area at the time.

         A man living in an apartment about 100 yards from where the shooting occurred testified that he heard gunshots and looked out his window. He saw a woman, later identified as Gabba, lying on the ground, and ten feet away another woman, who exhibited a slight limp, was running away. The witness described the woman who was running away as in her late 40's or early 50's with "brownish" skin color and wearing a bright head scarf. Like the Komarovas, he initially told the police that the woman was African-American, but, at trial, was less positive of her race.

         Suspicion quickly fell on Taneja and Kaur. Several hours after the murder, around 3:30 p.m., Montgomery County Police Department homicide detectives called Taneja's cell phone, but it went directly to voice mail, as did several additional calls. Warrants were obtained for Taneja and Kaur, who were arrested in Tennessee around 2:00 p.m. the day following the murder, as they were driving away from their home. One of the detectives observed that Kaur walked with a limp.

         The police searched the car and recovered a backpack containing a wig, black hair dye, a black hoodie, and a plastic bag. In the plastic bag was a .357 Ruger LCR revolver, which later testing and examination determined to be the murder weapon. The plastic bag also contained a holster for the .357 Ruger, and a 100 Ruger revolver. Inside Kaur's purse the police found a note in her handwriting that read: "You calm down. We are now in Tennessee near my home." A global positioning system device (GPS) was recovered from the front console of the car. Inside Taneja's wallet was a piece of paper on which Kaur had written Gabba's address.

         A search of Taneja's residence recovered documents with a note on top in Kaur's handwriting that read, "Dragon story and other court documents." The police also recovered a composition notebook with different handwriting that read, in part, "No brass, no evidence."

         A medical examiner testified that Gabba had been shot three times in the upper chest and abdomen. The bullets had entered from the left side and traveled toward the right; two of the bullets entered the front part of her body, one entered from the back. Although two of the wounds were "rapidly fatal, " the medical examiner testified that Gabba could have possibly walked several steps before falling.

         Two firearm and tool mark identification experts testified that the three bullet specimens recovered from Gabba's body were all fired from the .357 Ruger LCR revolver that was recovered from Taneja's car. Taneja's DNA was found on both guns seized from his car.

         The State also presented evidence to support its theory of Taneja's and Kaur's motive to kill Gabba, including that, in 2009, when Gabba moved to the United States from India, Taneja and Gabba were experiencing marital discord. While Gabba lived in a condominium in Germantown with one of Taneja's sons, Taneja and Kaur lived nearby and held themselves out as husband and wife.

         In 2010, Gabba and Taneja began divorce proceedings, which became "very contentious" even though they had little property and no children together. The State introduced evidence that during the divorce proceedings, Taneja asked his son and Kaur to spy on Gabba, and that Taneja referred to Gabba as "Dragon Lady, " as did his son and Kaur. At one point during the divorce proceedings, Gabba, acceding to Taneja's demand, left the family home. She later returned, pursuant to a court order, to find that Taneja had erected walls so she had access only from the entry door to her bedroom.

         The State presented evidence that, although the divorce became final in July 2011, Taneja failed to honor their divorce agreements, and their interactions continued to be acrimonious. Indeed, at the time of Gabba's murder, Taneja still had not transferred their property in India as required by the divorce settlement, despite several requests by Gabba.

         Additional evidence was offered by the State relating to Taneja's agreement, as part of the divorce settlement, to pay alimony in the amount of $2, 400 each month for three years. Alimony was to terminate upon the death of either party. By February 2013, Taneja had fallen three months behind in his alimony obligation, prompting Gabba to send several demands for payment, via e-mail. Eventually, her attorney filed a contempt petition against Taneja who, in response, filed a counterclaim for $100, 000. The contempt hearing was scheduled for October 10, 2013, two days before the murder, but several days before the hearing, their attorneys negotiated an agreement whereby Taneja agreed to pay the arrears within 90 days.

         The State also presented evidence of Taneja's and Kaur's opportunity to kill Gabba.

         About five weeks before Gabba's murder, Taneja attended a day-long gun training class in Tennessee. The class included four hours of instruction and four hours of shooting range experience that would allow him to obtain a "handgun carry permit." In his testimony, the instructor recalled that, at the first class, Taneja entered the classroom with a woman and sat in the last row. When the woman was asked to leave because she had not paid to attend the class, Taneja moved to the first row. The instructor particularly remembered Taneja because he took "a ton of" notes. Among the instructor's recommendations to the class participants was that they purchase a revolver rather than a semiautomatic, because the latter requires much more training for accuracy than a revolver. He further remembered telling the class that a semiautomatic "spits out" shell casings that can later be matched to the gun, but a revolver does not.

         On September 28, 2013, two weeks before the murder, Taneja purchased two revolvers from a gun store in Tennessee: a .357 Ruger LCR, which was described as a snub- nosed revolver designed with a "concealed hammer" so it would not get hung up on clothing, and a 100 Ruger GP. Additionally, Taneja purchased a holster for the .357 and ammunition for both guns. Kaur was present in the store when Taneja purchased those items.

         Around 7:00 p.m. on October 11, the night before the murder, Taneja and Kaur checked into the Red Roof Inn in Germantown, about eight miles from where Gabba was shot. From the GPS recovered from Taneja's car, the police learned that at 9:58 a.m. the next morning - October 12 - the GPS device traveled toward the District of Columbia.

         The evidence disclosed that both Taneja and Kaur were involved in Amway distribution and sales, Taneja since the early 1990's. On the weekend of October 11-13, 2013, Amway held a "Free Enterprise" weekend conference at the Washington Hilton, involving thousands of Amway members. The event started Friday night at 6:00 p.m. and lasted until Sunday at 3:45 p.m. Taneja's Amway sponsor testified that Taneja was aware of the importance of attending the conference.

         At 10:44 a.m. on the morning of the murder, Taneja purchased two tickets for the conference. About 30 minutes later, the GPS revealed a stop near the Washington Hilton, a distance of about 19 miles from the Red Roof Inn. At 11:37 a.m., Taneja and Kaur entered the conference, where they were seen by Taneja's Amway sponsor and his wife shortly after they arrived. A short time later the sponsor texted Taneja, inviting him and Kaur to join their group for lunch. Taneja texted back that he could not make it because Kaur was not feeling well. The sponsor's wife testified that Kaur had not appeared unwell when she had seen her earlier. From the GPS device, the police determined that Taneja and Kaur attended the three day event for less than an hour, leaving the D.C. area shortly after noon. Their car continued westward, stopping in Farragut, Tennessee around midnight. Their travel resumed the following morning around 9:30 and concluded at their home about noon.

         After the State rested, Taneja called nine witnesses who testified as to his character trait for peacefulness.

         Taneja also called several witnesses to support his theory that another person was the shooter. Specifically, he called: (1) Ms. Komarova to suggest that the woman who ran away did so out of fear of being shot; (2) two witnesses who testified that Taneja's current annual income was $150, 000 to $175, 000, to suggest that he had no financial motive to commit the crime; (3) Taneja's divorce attorney, who testified that Taneja was not displeased with the outcome of the divorce; (4) a gunshot residue expert to suggest that the woman near Gabba just before her death was not the shooter; and (5) a witness who testified that an indoor shooting range near the defendant's home in Tennessee was open on Sunday, to suggest that Taneja and Kaur were on their way to the shooting range with their guns when they were arrested leaving their house.


         Taneja argues that the trial court violated his right to present a defense when it excluded three witnesses, whom he had subpoenaed, were in court, and prepared to testify - Deepinder Singh, Dan Wright, and Utsav Taneja.[2] Singh is Kaur's son; Wright was Gabba's attorney in a lawsuit against Singh; and Utsav is Taneja's son.

         Taneja argues that the witnesses' testimony would have suggested that Singh shot and killed Gabba. He relies heavily on Kelly v. State, 392 Md. 511 (2006), to support his argument. The State responds that Kelly is distinguishable and that the trial court's ruling to exclude the witnesses was not reversible error because the proffered testimony was inadmissible hearsay and irrelevant.

         A. Law

         The Supreme Court discussed the Compulsory Process Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and its applicability to the State through the Fourteenth Amendment nearly 50 years ago in Washington v. Texas:

The right to offer the testimony of witnesses, and to compel their attendance, if necessary, is in plain terms the right to present a defense, the right to present the defendant's version of the facts as well as the prosecution's to the jury so it may decide where the truth lies. Just as an accused has the right to confront the prosecution's witnesses for the purpose of challenging their testimony, he has the right to present his own witnesses to establish a defense. This right is a fundamental element of due process of law.

388 U.S. 14, 19 (1967). In Maryland, the right of a criminal defendant to produce witnesses on his own behalf is guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and by Article 21 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. Redditt v. State, 337 Md. 621, 634-35 (1995); McCray v. State, 305 Md. 126, 133 (1985).

         Although the right of a defendant in a criminal trial to present witnesses in his defense is a critical right, it is not absolute. Taylor v. Illinois, 484 U.S. 400, 407-10 (1988). See also McCray, 305 Md. at 133-35. "[T]he accused does not have an unfettered right to offer testimony that is incompetent, privileged, or otherwise inadmissible under standard rules of evidence. The Compulsory Process Clause provides him with an effective weapon, but it is a weapon that cannot be used irresponsibly." Taylor, 484 U.S. at 410. The proffered evidence must be sufficiently relevant, rather than "cast[ing] a bare suspicion upon another." H ...

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