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Lopez v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

February 2, 2017


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


          Krauser, C.J.

          Curtis Maurice Lopez, appellant, entered Alford pleas[1] to the robbery and first-degree murder of Jane McQuain and the subsequent kidnapping and first-degree murder of her eleven-year-old son, William McQuain, in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. He was thereafter sentenced, by that court, to multiple terms of imprisonment, the longest of which were two consecutive terms of life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole.[2] Subsequently, however, this Court granted Lopez's application for leave to appeal. That application presented the two issues that are now before us, namely:

I. Whether the trial court erred in denying Lopez's request to direct the State "to disclose and state with particularity" what it intended to introduce at the sentencing hearing pursuant to Maryland Rule 4-342(d), and
II. Whether the sentencing court erred in permitting a "music/video slide show" depicting the lives of the victims to be played at the sentencing hearing.

          We hold that, although the State's presentencing notice to Lopez fell short of the requirement of Maryland Rule 4-342(d) that the "State's Attorney shall provide the information that the State expects to present at sentencing" to the defense, the inadequacy of that notice did not unfairly prejudice Lopez at sentencing. We further hold that the sentencing court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the victim impact video at issue to be shown during Lopez's sentencing hearing. Accordingly, we shall deny his request to vacate his sentences and affirm.

         We now turn to the four proceedings that are relevant to Lopez's two claims: the plea hearing, the two presentencing disclosure hearings, and the sentencing hearing.

         Plea Hearing

         According to the undisputed statement of facts, proffered by the State, at Lopez's plea hearing, Lopez married Jane McQuain, while he was imprisoned in Pennsylvania on an unrelated conviction for attempted murder. Then, while Lopez was still incarcerated, Ms. McQuain became pregnant, by another man, and, ultimately, gave birth to William. After Lopez was released from prison, he took up residence in North Carolina, while Ms. McQuain and her son, William, continued to reside in Maryland.

         In September 2011, upon learning that Ms. McQuain had recently inherited a significant amount of money from an uncle and had made several expensive purchases with that inheritance, Lopez contacted Ms. McQuain and informed her of his intention to visit her and William at their Maryland home. After arriving in Maryland, Lopez stayed with Ms. McQuain and her son, at McQuain's residence, from September 16th through September 30th of 2011.

         On the morning of the last day of his visit, September 30th, Jane McQuain dropped William off at a friend's house for an overnight stay, intending to pick him up the next day. That evening, however, as Ms. McQuain lay in her bed, Lopez struck her in the head with a thirty-pound dumbbell and stabbed her twice in the back with a butcher knife, inflicting fatal wounds. The next morning, Lopez used Ms. McQuain's bank card to withdraw money from her bank account and then drove her car to where William was staying. After arriving there, he used Jane McQuain's cell phone to text the eleven-year-old William to leave his friend's house and come outside. When William did so, Lopez told him to climb "into the car." Then, with William in the car, Lopez drove to Ms. McQuain's storage unit. From that storage unit, Lopez retrieved, among other things, a metal baseball bat, which he used, later that day, to beat William to death, shattering his skull into 36 pieces. Lopez thereafter drove Ms. McQuain's car to North Carolina, where he was arrested.

         Presentencing Disclosure Hearings

         Before sentencing, the State moved to compel disclosure of an expert witness, whom the defense intended to call at Lopez's sentencing hearing. In his response to that motion, Lopez's counsel accused the State of failing to provide him with "any information that the State expect[ed] to present to the court for consideration in sentencing, " as required by Maryland Rule 4-342(d), and requested that the State be compelled, in writing, to identify, from approximately 10, 000 pages of previously disclosed discovery material, what information it intended to present at sentencing.

         During the ensuing hearing on the State's motion to compel disclosure of an expert witness (which was granted by the circuit court), Lopez's counsel reiterated his complaint and demand for a remedial order. The prosecutor responded that the State had given adequate notice, under Rule 4-342(d), by informing Lopez that it was "going to use everything" that it had previously provided his counsel, including information from "years ago." Taking issue with that response, defense counsel rejoined: "[W]hat [the prosecutor] just said about the letter they sent us back in January, that, that anything they've given us in 10, 000 pages of discovery is fair game, is absolutely inadequate." The court then directed the State to file a written response to defense counsel's request for more specific information and scheduled a hearing on that matter.

         In the written response it subsequently filed, the State insisted that it had fully complied with Rule 4-342(d), relying principally on its January 24, 2013, letter to defense counsel, wherein it stated that it "reserve[d] the right to use any materials provided in discovery at the sentencing[.]" The State further claimed that Lopez's request for a more specific and precise statement of what information it intended to present at sentencing was "unprecedented" and that, in any event, "discovery has been provided since 2011, " and thus, Lopez had had a "reasonable opportunity to investigate" any of the information it had provided.

         At the hearing on his presentencing disclosure request that followed, defense counsel asserted that Rule 4-342(d) "is a rule of disclosure that" requires the State to specify "what [it] intends to introduce at sentencing[.]" Counsel then went on to explain what he was seeking and why:

We are requesting that we be . . . given some idea of what the State intends to rely on, because otherwise it's very difficult to marshal our efforts in a way that we can provide effective assistance of counsel, that we can prepare to rebut what the State puts on at sentencing in a case where we have gotten this volume of discovery, discovery that reaches back over 30 years. . . .
I would estimate that there are about 2, 000 pages from a 1987 Harrisburg, Pennsylvania attempted murder case, including medical records of the victim in that case, hundreds of pages of medical records, motions that were filed, statements of witness.[[3] There were hundreds of pages from 14 years in DOC in Pennsylvania, including - I've of course referred to the mental health record - but movement from institution to institution, parole files, records of, or parole being requested, parole being, when it was granted but before on attempts when it was denied. We have . . . at least 100 pages related to child support litigation. We have Mr. Lopez's employment records in North Carolina. . . . I would say that the majority of what we've been given was not . . . discovery of actual facts that would be used to prove up this case at trial . . . .
And Mr. Lopez is a 46-year-old man who . . . was incarcerated for a period of 14 years. He was then on parole, which he successfully completed. He was on parole from October of 2000 until . . . October of 2009 when he successfully completed it. There are records related to that. And I know [the prosecutor] is going to get up and say, "Well, what it is that the State intends to introduce at you've had all that . . . for a long time, " and that's true, but what's the purpose of this rule is it's not narrow down sentencing? . . . .
We are concerned that under the Sixth Amendment we won't be able to give effective assistance if we don't know what we need to be prepared to rebut out of all of this universe of information.

(Emphasis added.)

         In reply, the prosecutor characterized the defense motion as "novel, " one that he had "never seen . . . before[, ]" and that, contrary to defense counsel's claim that the State had failed to provide enough discovery, "we're here because the State has provided too much discovery." In the State's view,

[t]he rule says . . . all materials must be given in advance for sentencing. That has been done. That's no dispute. We're going to use all materials that we have provided to them. That includes pictures of the crime scene from where he killed his wife, pictures from the woods where he killed an 11-year-old boy with a baseball bat. We're going to show pictures, like we did at the plea . . . of where he hid the baseball bat and where he went in North Carolina and covered up materials. We'll talk about DNA. We're going to talk about everything. We're going to talk about his previous conviction, where he left somebody for dead on the side of the road. We're going to talk about when he put something over a [prison] guard's head, trying to kill him. We're going to talk about everything.
So I think they really should be prepared for everything that they've been provided, and I think a lot of it is redundant.

         The prosecutor further stated that, with the exception of the presentence investigation report and victim impact statements, the defense had everything the State was required to produce. Then, following the prosecutor's assurance to the court that "only a handful of people [would be] speaking on behalf of the victim impact, " the circuit court denied defense counsel the relief he sought.

          Sentencing Hearing

         At the outset of the sentencing hearing, defense counsel moved to exclude a victim impact video, which the State intended to present, consisting of a slide show of 115 still photographs, showing the victims, Jane and William McQuain, throughout their lives, either alone, together, or with a family member or friend. The State planned to show this victim impact video during the testimony of Bill McQuain, the brother of Jane McQuain and the uncle of William, who had been designated as the "Victims' Representative." The video montage, in question, was accompanied by instrumental music, a popular song, and a bell, ringing as it began and then, once again, as it ended. The only words that appeared on the screen, during that video, were the video's title, "The Story of Jane and William, " which could only be observed at the beginning of the video montage, and then, a "credits list" of individuals who had provided photographs for the montage, at its conclusion.

         Asserting that this type of victim impact presentation "is done all the time[, ]" the prosecutor, as well as counsel for the Victims' Representative, claimed that the video was "not inflammatory in any way" and was therefore permissible, as victim impact material, under Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991). The trial court ultimately denied the defense's motion to exclude the victim video montage, stating:

I have discretion to allow whatever I like or whatever is appropriate in this kind of sentencing proceeding. I'm told that it is just pictures, that it is six minutes. This is their one, the victim's [sic] family's one opportunity to show me, or anyone else, the extent of the impact upon them. And so I know you don't like it, but this is what they would like to do, and in some respects, it would be cathartic to, for the last time, be able to fully discuss their sister and their nephew. So I'm going to allow the video to be played.

         At the end of testimony of the Victims' Representative, the State played the victim impact video. When it concluded, defense counsel asked the sentencing judge to recuse herself, claiming that the video was "unduly prejudicial, " "just appeal[ed] to emotions, " and was "over the top." The court denied that request, asserting, "You're entitled to show pictures, they're pictures." Then, in imposing sentence, the circuit court stated:

There's not much more I can say other than the eloquent words we have heard from all of the victims here today and in their victim impact statements . . . .
[T]he monstrous nature of this crime cannot convert this case into concurrent time or any prospect of parole. You stabbed Jane McQuain and crushed her skull with a 30-pound dumbbell. You took William from a sleepover, got a baseball bat out, took him into the woods, and crushed his skull into many pieces. And this was a person who called you "dad."
Your difficult childhood, you had a crime ridden neighborhood, an abusive family, abandonment issues, a history of mental illness in your family, a rotten prison experience which you probably deserved.[[4] The riot in the prison may help explain to somehow any human being could so diabolically and methodically plan to brutally murder the two people on earth who loved you.
As for second chances, you have had at least one already. Divine providence stepped in after you stabbed that acquaintance 18 times for his vehicle, when strangers ...

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