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Darling v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

April 27, 2017


          Krauser, C.J., Berger, Shaw Geter, JJ.


          SHAW GETER, J.

         Deshaune Darling, appellant, was convicted by a jury sitting in the Circuit Court for Dorchester County of first-degree premeditated murder; conspiracy to commit first-degree murder; second-degree murder; first-degree assault; conspiracy to commit first-degree assault; second-degree assault; wearing, carrying or transporting a handgun; use of a handgun in the commission of a felony or crime of violence; kidnapping; and conspiracy to commit kidnapping. [1] Appellant presents the following five questions on appeal, which we have slightly rephrased:

I. Did the suppression court err when it denied appellant's motion to suppress evidence seized from two motor vehicles?
II. Did the trial court err when it admitted into evidence a letter purportedly written by appellant while he was an inmate at the detention center because it was not properly authenticated?
III. Did the trial court err when it admitted into evidence a cell phone service receipt because it was not properly authenticated and constituted inadmissible hearsay?
IV. Did the trial court err when it admitted "other crimes" evidence?
V. Did the trial court err in denying appellant's motion for judgment of acquittal? For the reasons that follow, we shall affirm.


         The State's theory of prosecution was that appellant and an accomplice murdered Radames Guzman either in revenge for providing information about appellant to the police or to prevent Guzman from testifying against appellant in a subsequent trial. The State's evidence was circumstantial and came primarily, from evidence seized from two vehicles; the decomposed body of Guzman; and the testimony of Jessie Jo Stewart, a drug addict who bought drugs from appellant. The defense's theory was that Stewart, killed Guzman to curry favor with appellant. The defense presented no testimonial evidence.

         In the summer of 2011, Guzman, a confidential informant for the Delaware State police, made several controlled drug buys from appellant. Based on those buys, a search warrant was issued and executed for appellant's home in Dover, Delaware. Appellant was arrested, released on bond, but then "disappeared" and failed to appear for trial.

         Roughly three years later, on the night of August 2, 2014, Guzman was last seen by his family leaving his house in Delaware. About three weeks later, on August 24th, his partially decomposed and buried body was found in a wooded area near Linkwood and Red Mill Roads in Dorchester County. Guzman's wrists were bound behind his back with duct tape, and he had three gunshot wounds to the back of his head. He was identified by his fingerprints. A subsequent medical examination revealed that the cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds and the manner of death was homicide.

         An investigation into Guzman's Facebook account and cell phone usage revealed that he was last in contact with a woman named Jessie Jo Stewart. The police interviewed her on September 2, but she told the police that she did not know Guzman or what had happened to him.

         Two days after that interview, police set up a covert surveillance at appellant's home, located at 309 Prior Avenue in Salisbury. A van was parked in the driveway and a Lexus on the street; both vehicles were associated with appellant. Police officers saw appellant leaving his home in the van. They followed him and eventually stopped the vehicle. He was taken into custody, and the van was towed to a Maryland State Police Barrack. Pursuant to a search warrant, two black ski masks and a cell phone service receipt were seized from the vehicle.

         After appellant's arrest, a police canine unit made a positive alert for drugs on the Lexus. The Lexus was also towed to a Maryland State Police Barrack where it was searched pursuant to a search warrant. The executing officer observed that the car and trunk were "very clean" and noted that as soon as the door of the car and trunk were opened he was "overwhelmed" by the "strong odor of cleaning material[.]" He found what appeared to be several spots of dried blood in the trunk - on the molding, interior lid, trunk mat, and side wall. Swabs of the suspected blood were collected, pursuant to an additional search warrant obtained by the officers. DNA analysis on the swabs showed that the blood was from either Guzman or a brother based on DNA swabs taken from Guzman's mother and father.[2] DNA found on one of the ski masks matched appellant's DNA.

         Stewart entered into a plea agreement with the State in which she agreed to plead guilty to a charge of kidnapping and testify truthfully at appellant's trial, and in exchange the State would recommend a sentence of eight years. Stewart testified that she was a longtime drug addict and had known appellant, who supplied her with drugs, for about a year prior to the murder. She paid for the drugs with money, if she had it, or with sex.

         Stewart testified that appellant asked her to look up Radames Guzman, who she did not know, on the internet and arrange to meet him. She found Guzman on Facebook, and they agreed to meet on the evening of August 2; she told appellant about the arrangement. Messages from Guzman's and Stewart's Facebook accounts corroborated her account and were admitted into evidence.

         On August 2, appellant picked up Stewart and drove her to the Royal Farms store in Easton to obtain a car he had arranged for her to use to pick up Guzman. Once at the store, they met three people in a gold Grand Marquis. Video footage from the store's surveillance cameras was introduced into evidence. Stewart entered the Grand Marquis and drove the three occupants to a nearby house where they got out. She then drove to Delaware to meet Guzman. During the trip, she was in cell phone contact with appellant.

         After picking up Guzman, she drove to a Royal Farms store in Felton, Delaware and texted appellant while she was in the bathroom. Photographs from the store's video surveillance corroborated Stewart's and Guzman's presence at the store with a Grand Marquis around 11:30 p.m. They then left the store and drove to the Cambridge area of Maryland, during which she was in cell phone contact with appellant. At some point, a car, which she later learned was appellant's Lexus, pulled up behind her on a deserted, back road and flashed its headlights. She stopped the car she was driving and got out. As she did so, she was shoved to the ground, but saw two men wearing ski masks and all black clothing. One of the men held a gun in his hands. Both of the men pulled Guzman, who was screaming, out of the car. One man hit Guzman in the face with the gun, and both men hit Guzman all over with their fists. The men duct taped Guzman's hands and ankles and put him in the back seat of appellant's Lexus. The men then pulled up their masks and she recognized appellant and another man, whom she had seen before but did not know his name.

         Stewart followed the Lexus to another deserted, back road where the men placed Guzman in the trunk of the Lexus. They then drove to a migrant camp where appellant sold drugs for several hours. Stewart followed appellant back to Easton where they dropped off the Grand Marquis at the house where she had earlier left the three occupants. She then got into the Lexus with appellant and the other man. Appellant drove to the Royal Farms store in Easton. Video footage from the store's surveillance cameras shows Stewart and appellant at the store around 3:00 a.m. The video footage also shows appellant pumping gas and then walking to the rear of his car where he leans over as if to listen to noise from inside of the trunk.

         Appellant then drove Stewart to her home in Cambridge, during which time she heard "kicking in the trunk." Before she got out of the car, appellant asked for her cell phone, which she gave to him. Cell phone records from the number on the cell phone receipt found in the van in which appellant was arrested show that between 4:07 a.m. and 4:50 a.m., that cell phone was in the area where Guzman's body was later found. The next day Stewart went to Walmart and bought a new phone with money appellant had given her. Photographs from the Walmart surveillance video support Stewart's testimony and show her walking out of Walmart with the phone on August 3 around 7:00 a.m.

         Stewart admitted that she had not been honest in her first interview with the police on September 2. She explained that she was scared -- appellant had threatened her and her family. Her second interview with the police, roughly two weeks later, on September 17, was played for the jury and more closely followed her trial testimony.

         Stewart's testimony was corroborated, in part, by the testimony of Tytina Williams, her boyfriend Gary Barham, and their friend Donnie Eisman. They testified that on the afternoon of August 2, they drove in Eisman's car to Salisbury, Maryland where Barham bought drugs from appellant, who was driving a Lexus. An arrangement was made to meet later so appellant could borrow Eisman's car. That night the three drove to the Royal Farms store in Easton where appellant pulled up in his Lexus with a woman inside. The woman got in the passenger seat of Eisman's car, and they drove to Barham's house. The three got out of the car, and the woman drove off. During the early morning hours of the next day, the woman drove the car back to the house. At the same time, appellant drove up in his Lexus with a man known to Barham as "Terrell" sitting in the passenger seat. The woman exited Eisman's car and got into the back seat of the Lexus, which then left.

         Following appellant's arrest, he was held at the Wicomico County Detention Center. On January 21, 2015, the detention center seized a letter from the outgoing mail addressed to appellant's fiancée and signed by appellant. A scanned copy was sent to the State's Attorney's Office. An expert in the field of handwriting analysis compared exemplars of appellant's handwriting to the scanned letter and concluded that she "was virtually certain that the letter was written" by appellant. In the letter, appellant admitted that he knew Guzman and knew that he had acted as a drug informant against him. Appellant wrote that Stewart killed Guzman as a "surprise" for him and he "didn't have anything to do with it." He wrote that Stewart had asked him about borrowing someone's car to carry out the surprise. Appellant made arrangements for her to borrow a friend's car, and sometime that night, she showed him her "surprise" - she opened the trunk and he saw Guzman lying inside.

         We will provide additional facts as needed to address the questions raised.



         Appellant argues that the suppression court erred when it denied his motion to suppress the evidence seized from two vehicles associated with him -- a Dodge van and a Lexus sedan. Appellant makes several arguments but mostly focuses on two: the police did not possess reasonable articulable suspicion to justify the stop of the van or to engage in a canine search of the Lexus. The State disagrees, as do we.

         When reviewing the denial of a motion to suppress, the record at the suppression hearing is the exclusive source of facts for our review. State v. Rucker, 374 Md. 199, 207 (2003). We extend great deference to the fact finding of the suppression judge and accept the facts as found, unless clearly erroneous. Id. (citation omitted). A factual finding cannot be clearly erroneous if there is any competent evidence to support the finding below. Hoerauf v. State, 178 Md.App. 292, 314 (2008) (citing Fuge v. Fuge, 146 Md.App. 142, 180, cert. denied, 372 Md. 430 (2002)). We review the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, in this case, the State. Cartnail v. State, 359 Md. 272, 282 (2000). Nevertheless, we must make our own independent constitutional appraisal by reviewing the law and applying it to the facts of the case. Haley v. State, 398 Md. 106, 131 (2007) (citing Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690 (1996)).

         Prior to trial, appellant moved to suppress the evidence found in a Dodge van and Lexus sedan. Testifying for the State at the ensuing suppression hearing was appellant's fiancée and four police officers: Detective Jordan Banks and Deputy J.C. Richardson, Wicomico County Sheriff's Office, and Trooper Kenny Moore and Detective Sergeant Chasity Blades, Maryland State Police Department.

         Around 7:00 a.m. on September 4, 2015, Detective Banks set up a covert surveillance at 306 Prior Avenue in Salisbury where appellant and his fiancée lived. Detective Banks was instructed to advise other officers in the area when appellant, who had outstanding warrants, left the home. Sometime after 9:00 a.m., Detective Banks saw appellant exit the home and drive off in the green Dodge van that had been parked in the driveway of the home.

         Detective Banks maintained surveillance of the van until it was observed by Trooper Moore, who then fell in behind it. Trooper Moore testified he had been ordered to take appellant into custody based on two outstanding warrants. Trooper Moore testified that he made telephone calls the day before and that morning and confirmed that the two warrants were still valid. He testified that he did not attempt ...

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