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Bellard v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

March 31, 2017

DARRELL BELLARD
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Argued: March 6, 2017

         Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case No. CT101239A.

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, JJ.

          OPINION

          Watts, J.

         In 2013, Maryland repealed the death penalty. To effectuate the repeal of the death penalty and provisions related to the death penalty, the General Assembly repealed several statutes, and repealed and reenacted, with amendments, other statutes, including Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law (2002, 2012 Repl. Vol.) ("CR (2012)") § 2-304(a), which previously governed the procedure for sentencing a defendant who was convicted of first-degree murder to life imprisonment or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, where either the State did not give notice of intent to seek the death penalty, or the State gave such notice but the trial court or jury determined that the death penalty should not be imposed. See 2013 Md. Laws 2298-99 (Vol. III, Ch. 156, S.B. 276). The General Assembly amended CR (2012) § 2-304(a), effective October 1, 2013, by making the following deletions:

(a) In general. - (1) If the State gave notice under § 2-203(1) of this title, [1]but did not give notice of intent to seek the death penalty under § 2-202(a)(1) of this title, the court shall conduct a separate sentencing proceeding as soon as practicable after the defendant is found guilty of murder in the first degree to determine whether the defendant shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole or to imprisonment for life.
(2) If the State gave notice under both §§ 2-202(a)(1) and 2-203(1) of this title, but the court or jury determines that the death sentence may not be imposed, that court or jury shall determine whether the defendant shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole or to imprisonment for life.

2013 Md. Laws 2317, 2323 (Vol. III, Ch. 156, S.B. 276). As such, after the amendment, Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law (2002, 2012 Repl. Vol., 2016 Supp.) ("CR") § 2-304(a) provided and currently provides:

(a) In general. - If the State gave notice under § 2-203(1) of this title, the court shall conduct a separate sentencing proceeding as soon as practicable after the defendant is found guilty of murder in the first degree to determine whether the defendant shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole or to imprisonment for life.

         The General Assembly did not amend the remainder of CR § 2-304, which provided, and continues to provide, as follows:

(b) Findings. - (1) A determination by a jury to impose a sentence of imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole must be unanimous.
(2) If the jury finds that a sentence of imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole shall be imposed, the court shall impose a sentence of imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole.
(3) If, within a reasonable time, the jury is unable to agree to imposition of a sentence of imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole, the court shall impose a sentence of imprisonment for life.

         As a result of the amendment, CR § 2-304(a) provides that a trial court shall conduct a sentencing proceeding to determine whether to sentence a defendant who is convicted of first-degree murder to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, whereas CR § 2-304(b) refers to a jury determination as to a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

         The General Assembly's amendment of CR (2012) § 2-304(a), without amending CR (2012) § 2-304(b), gives rise to the two issues that we must decide in this case: (I) whether a defendant who is convicted of first-degree murder has a right, under CR § 2-304, to have a jury, rather than the trial court, determine whether to sentence the defendant to life imprisonment or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole; and, if not, (II) whether Maryland's sentencing scheme for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional.

         We answer these questions in the negative and hold that: (I) under CR § 2-304(a), where a defendant is convicted of first-degree murder and the State has given notice of an intent to seek life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, the trial court, not the jury, determines whether to sentence the defendant to life imprisonment or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole; stated otherwise, CR § 2-304 does not grant a defendant who is convicted of first-degree murder the right to have a jury determine whether to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole; and (II) Maryland's sentencing scheme for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole does not violate the United States Constitution or the Maryland Declaration of Rights, and neither the United States Constitution nor the Maryland Declaration of Rights provides a defendant with a right to have a jury determine whether the defendant should be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole; stated otherwise, both the United States Constitution and the Maryland Declaration of Rights permit a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole to be imposed in the same manner as every other sentence except the death penalty, which has been abolished in Maryland.

         BACKGROUND

         Darrell Bellard ("Bellard"), Petitioner, was charged in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County ("the circuit court") with four counts of first-degree murder and related offenses arising out of crimes which resulted in the deaths of two women and two children, all of whom had been shot in the head. In the early morning of August 6, 2010, Bellard was taken to a police station to be interviewed as a witness. As law enforcement officers gathered evidence throughout the day, they learned that Bellard was a drug dealer from Texas and that he had been mad at one of the victims; Bellard, thus, became a suspect. Bellard initially denied responsibility for the deaths of the four victims, but later confessed to the shootings.

         On February 4, 2011, the State filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty. Prior to the start of Bellard's trial, in 2013, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 276, repealing the death penalty, and on May 2, 2013, the Governor of Maryland approved Senate Bill 276. See 2013 Md. Laws 2323 (Vol. III, Ch. 156, S.B. 276). The act was to take effect on October 1, 2013. See id.

         On June 3, 2013, in response to the pending repeal of the death penalty, the State filed in the circuit court a "Notice to Withdraw Intent to Seek Death Penalty." On June 6, 2013, the State filed a "Notice of Intent to Seek Sentence of Imprisonment for Life without Possibility of Parole" as to all four counts of first-degree murder.[2]

         On March 5, 2014, Bellard filed a "Notice of Defendant's Election to be Tried by Jury and, if Convicted of First[-]Degree Murder, to be Sentenced by Jury." On March 31, 2014, Bellard filed a request for specific voir dire concerning life imprisonment without the possibility of parole-specifically, voir dire questions "relating to . . . prejudice, partiality, presupposition, and/or inability to follow the law with regard to the sentencing process." On April 4, 2014, Bellard filed a motion to strike the State's notice of intent to seek life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In the motion to strike, Bellard contended that the amended version of CR § 2-304 requires a jury to decide whether to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, while Maryland Rule 4-342 requires a trial court to determine a defendant's sentence. According to Bellard, given the conflict between CR § 2-304 and Maryland Rule 4-342, it would be "impossible" to sentence him to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole "in a manner that complies with both the statute and the rule[.]" Bellard also argued that a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole would violate his rights under the United States Constitution and the Maryland Declaration of Rights.

         On April 7, 2014, the State filed a motion to strike Bellard's notice of election to be sentenced by jury. In the motion to strike, the State contended that, in repealing the death penalty, the General Assembly did not intend to create a statutory right for a defendant to have a jury determine whether to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. According to the State, with the exception of the death penalty, a defendant has no right to be sentenced by a jury, and no statute confers such a right to a defendant, despite whatever language the General Assembly left in CR § 2-304. The State further argued that the Maryland Rules clearly provide that a trial court shall determine whether to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

         On April 7, 2014, the circuit court conducted a hearing, at which it heard argument on the motions to strike. At the hearing, the parties made the same arguments that they raised in the motions to strike, with Bellard's counsel contending, among other things, that amended CR § 2-304 provides for the right for a defendant to have a jury determine whether to impose life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. And, the State argued that the General Assembly's intent, as reflected by the plain language of CR § 2-304 and the legislative history of the bill repealing the death penalty, was solely to repeal the death penalty, not to create a new right to jury sentencing in cases in which the State seeks life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. At the conclusion of the hearing, the circuit court orally ruled from the bench, denying Bellard's motion to strike the State's notice and striking, or denying, Bellard's notice of election to be sentenced by a jury.

         The case proceeded to trial, and a jury convicted Bellard of four counts of first-degree murder, four counts of use of a handgun in the commission of a felony or crime of violence, and three counts of conspiracy to commit murder. On June 27, 2014, the circuit court sentenced Bellard, in relevant part, to four consecutive sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, one for each conviction for first-degree murder.[3]

         On July 1, 2014, Bellard filed a request for a sentence review by a three-judge panel. On July 15, 2014, the circuit court issued an order directing a three-judge panel to consider Bellard's request. On September 2, 2014, on behalf of the three-judge panel, a judge of the panel issued an order denying the request without a hearing.

         In the meantime, on July 9, 2014, Bellard noted an appeal. On August 31, 2016, in a reported opinion, the Court of Special Appeals vacated two of the three convictions and sentences for conspiracy to commit murder, and affirmed the circuit court's judgments in all other respects. See Bellard v. State, 229 Md.App. 312, 353, 145 A.3d 61, 86 (2016).[4]The Court of Special Appeals held, among other things, that CR § 2-304 does not give a defendant the right to have a jury determine whether the defendant should be sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. See Bellard, 229 Md.App. at 338, 145 A.3d at 77. At the outset, the Court observed that Bellard "d[id] not contend that the United States or Maryland Constitutions compel sentencing by jury in cases involving life without parole. His argument [wa]s a purely statutory one[.]" Id. at 328, 145 A.3d at 70. The Court concluded that CR § 2-304 is ambiguous because, although CR § 2-304(a) seems to commit sentencing to the trial court, CR § 2-304(b) contemplates that a jury determine whether the defendant should be sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. See Bellard, 229 Md.App. at 336, 145 A.3d at 76. The Court determined that the purpose of the relevant amendment to CR § 2-304 was simply to repeal the death penalty, not to expand a jury's authority to sentence a defendant or otherwise "alter sentencing procedures in non-capital murder cases." Id. at 336-37, 145 A.3d at 76. Finally, the Court rejected Bellard's contention that CR § 2-304 was void for vagueness, and concluded that there was "no basis on which to find the sentencing procedures at issue unconstitutionally vague." Id. at 338-39, 145 A.3d at 77-78.

         Bellard thereafter filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, which this Court granted on December 2, 2016. See Bellard v. State, 450 Md. 660, 150 A.3d 817 (2016).

         DISCUSSION

         I.

         The Parties' Contentions

         Bellard contends that CR § 2-304 gives a defendant the right to have a jury determine whether the defendant should be sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Bellard argues that CR § 2-304 is unambiguous, and that CR § 2-304(b) plainly provides that a jury may sentence a defendant who has been convicted of first-degree murder to either life imprisonment or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and that, with respect to a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, the jury's decision must be unanimous. Bellard asserts that his interpretation of CR § 2-304 is supported by Md. Code Ann., Corr. Servs. (1999, 2008 Repl. Vol., 2016 Supp.) ("CS") § 6-112(c)(3), which provides that a trial court "or jury" shall consider a presentence investigation report at a sentencing proceeding under CR § 2-304 where the State seeks life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

         Bellard maintains that his interpretation of CR § 2-304 is supported by the statute's legislative history, as, in 2015 and 2016, the General Assembly refrained from passing bills that would have repealed the provisions that allow a jury to sentence a defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. With respect to the bills introduced during the 2015 legislative session, Bellard contends that the bills' language demonstrates that the bills' sponsors believed that CR § 2-304 grants a defendant the right to have a jury determine the defendant's sentence for first-degree murder. Bellard argues that the General Assembly's decision to not repeal or amend CR § 2-304(b) demonstrates an intent to permit a defendant to have a jury determine whether to impose life imprisonment without the possibility of parole where the defendant is convicted of first-degree murder. Bellard also asserts that, assuming there is any ambiguity in CR § 2-304, because CR § 2-304 is a penal statute, any ambiguity CR § 2-304 must be construed in his favor under the rule of lenity.

         The State responds that the General Assembly's repeal of the death penalty did not affect the longstanding principle that, where the State seeks life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, a trial court, not a jury, determines the sentence. The State contends that, because CR § 2-304(b) applied only where the State sought the death penalty, and because the General Assembly has repealed the death penalty, CR § 2-304(b) is now inoperative. The State argues that the General Assembly's only intent in amending CR (2012) § 2-304(a) was to repeal the death penalty, not to give new meaning to CR § 2-304(b) and permit a defendant to have a jury determine whether to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The State asserts that the plain language of CR § 2-304, as amended in 2013, demonstrates that the General Assembly did not intend to create a right to jury sentencing in cases in which the State seeks life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The State maintains that CR § 2-304(a) has been interpreted to mean that a trial court, not a jury, determines whether to impose life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and that the same language has been retained in the statute even after repeal of the death penalty.

         The State contends that, when read in context, the references to jury sentencing in CR § 2-304(b) do not create a new right, but are simply vestiges of the former death penalty sentencing scheme. The State argues that, even if CR § 2-304 is ambiguous, the legislative history supports the conclusion that the General Assembly did not intend to create a right to jury sentencing in cases in which the State seeks life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As further support for its interpretation of CR § 2-304, the State points out that no right to jury sentencing has been enacted with respect to defendants convicted of other crimes for which a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is an available penalty, such as first-degree rape and first-degree sexual offense. The State asserts that legislative inaction on subsequent bills introduced during the 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions is of no consequence, and is not indicative of any intent by the General Assembly to create a right to jury sentencing in cases of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole through Senate Bill 276. The State maintains that the rule of lenity is inapplicable in this case because the rule of lenity applies only where a statute is open to more than one interpretation, and the court is unable to determine which interpretation the General Assembly intended.

         Standard of Review

         "An appellate court reviews without deference a trial court's interpretation of a statute[.]" Howard v. State, 440 Md. 427, 434, 103 A.3d 572, 576 (2014) (citations omitted). See also Allen v. State, 440 Md. 643, 667, 103 A.3d 700, 714 (2014) ("We review the Court of Special Appeals's interpretation of the statute de novo." (Citation omitted)). Because this case involves statutory interpretation, we set forth in some detail the relevant rules of statutory construction:

The cardinal rule of statutory construction is to ascertain and effectuate the intent of the General Assembly.
As this Court has explained, to determine that purpose or policy, we look first to the language of the statute, giving it its natural and ordinary meaning. We do so on the tacit theory that the General Assembly is presumed to have meant what it said and said what it meant. When the statutory language is clear, we need not look beyond the statutory language to determine the General Assembly's intent. If the words of the statute, construed according to their common and everyday meaning, are clear and unambiguous and express a plain meaning, we will give effect to the statute as it is written. In addition, we neither add nor delete words to a clear and unambiguous statute to give it a meaning not reflected by the words that the General Assembly used or engage in forced or subtle interpretation in an attempt to extend or limit the statute's meaning. If there is no ambiguity in the language, either inherently or by reference to other relevant laws or circumstances, the inquiry as to legislative intent ends.
If the language of the statute is ambiguous, however, then courts consider not only the literal or usual meaning of the words, but their meaning and effect in light of the setting, the objectives, and the purpose of the enactment under consideration. We have said that there is an ambiguity within a statute when there exist two or more reasonable alternative interpretations of the statute. When a statute can be interpreted in more than one way, the job of this Court is to resolve that ambiguity in light of the legislative intent, using all the resources and tools of statutory construction at our disposal.
If the true legislative intent cannot be readily determined from the statutory language alone, however, we may, and often must, resort to other recognized indicia-among other things, the structure of the statute, including its title; how the statute relates to other laws; the legislative history, including the derivation of the statute, comments and explanations regarding it by authoritative sources during the legislative process, and amendments proposed or added to it; the general purpose behind the statute; and the relative rationality and legal effect of various competing constructions.
In construing a statute, we avoid a construction of the statute that is unreasonable, illogical, or inconsistent with common sense.
In addition, the meaning of the plainest language is controlled by the context in which i[t] appears. As this Court has stated, because it is part of the context, related statutes or a statutory scheme that fairly bears on the fundamental issue of legislative purpose or goal must also be considered. Thus, not only are we required to interpret the statute as a whole, but, if appropriate, in the context of the entire statutory scheme of which it is a part.

Wagner v. State, 445 Md. 404, 417-19, 128 A.3d 1, 9-10 (2015) (citation and brackets omitted).

         Law

         CR § 2-201 defines first-degree murder and provides as follows with respect to the penalty:

(1) A person who commits a murder in the first degree is guilty of a felony and on conviction shall be sentenced to:
(i) imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole; or
(ii) imprisonment for life.
(2) Unless a sentence of imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole is imposed in compliance with [CR] § 2-203 [] and [CR] § 2-304 [], the sentence shall be imprisonment for life.

CR § 2-201(b). In turn, CR § 2-203 provides:

A defendant found guilty of murder in the first degree may be sentenced to imprisonment for life without the ...

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