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State v. Crawley

Court of Appeals of Maryland

August 2, 2017


          Argued: March 3, 2017

         Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case No. CT 97-0647B

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


          Barbera, C.J.

         All forms of first degree murder carry a statutorily-mandated life sentence. See Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 2-201(b) (2002, 2012 Repl. Vol., 2016 Supp.).[1] Although a life sentence must be imposed, the sentencing court retains the discretion to suspend any portion of it so long as the suspended portion carries with it a period of probation. Md. Code Ann., Crim. Proc. § 6-222 (2001, 2008 Repl. Vol., 2016 Supp.);[2] Cathcart v. State, 397 Md. 320, 327 (2007). The absence of a period of probation has the effect of removing the portion of the life sentence that has been suspended, leaving standing only the term-of-years portion of the sentence. See Cathcart, 397 Md. at 330. A term-of-years sentence for first degree murder is an illegal sentence that must be corrected by adding a period of probation. Greco v. State, 427 Md. 477, 513 (2012).

         The case before us presents the question of whether a sentence for first degree felony murder containing such an illegality must be corrected as described in Greco when the illegal sentence was imposed pursuant to a plea agreement. For the reasons that follow, we hold that the rule established by Greco applies regardless of whether the sentence was the product of a plea agreement or upon a conviction following trial.


         The crime, the plea agreement, and the sentencing

         This case has its genesis in the 1997 armed robbery and murder of a District of Columbia policeman, Officer Oliver Smith, who was off duty at the time. The subsequent investigation quickly led the police to conclude that Respondent, Anthony Allen Crawley, and two co-actors, Antwaun Brown and Donovan Strickland, were involved in the commission of the crime. Crawley was charged with first degree felony murder and armed robbery. In exchange for his agreement to testify truthfully against Brown and Strickland, Crawley agreed to plead guilty to both charges.

         The plea hearing was held in September 1997. At the outset of that hearing, counsel for Crawley made the following request: "We are asking the Court to bind itself to an agreement reached between the State and the Defense that the sentence in this case would be life, which the Court would be required to impose, but that all but thirty-five years would be suspended on the felony murder charge." The plea agreement, which was read at the hearing, provided in pertinent part:

The State, the Court, and the Defendant agree that the Defendant shall be sentenced after the conclusion of the trials of codefendants Antwaun Brown and Donovan Strickland, to life suspend all but 35 years for the aforesaid felony murder charge. The underlying charge of robbery with a deadly weapon will merge, by operation of law, with the felony murder charge at sentencing.

         The plea agreement did not mention probation, and the court did not utter the term "probation" during the hearing, except in the course of a somewhat lengthy colloquy with Crawley concerning the impact that his guilty plea in the present case could have on his then-current status in the criminal justice system. Even then, the court's reference to probation was in asking Crawley whether he was "on any kind of parole or probation at this point in time." Neither the State nor defense counsel referred to probation in connection with the sentence presented by the plea, and neither brought up the necessity to have a period of probation attached to the suspended portion of the life sentence.

         At the conclusion of the hearing, the court declared its satisfaction that the plea was "knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently made, " and that defense counsel had discussed the plea in detail with Crawley and, with Crawley's consent, his family. The court then formally accepted the plea agreement.

         Sentencing took place a little more than a year later, on October 16, 1998. At the hearing, the court reiterated the agreement in imposing the sentence:

The sentence of this Court is, as to Count One, first degree felony murder, that you be sentenced to life in prison. Pursuant to the plea agreement, all but 35 years is suspended, and that sentence is to commence as of February 27th, 1997.
As to Count Two, robbery with a deadly weapon, the sentence is that the Court rules that no sentence can be imposed because under felony murder robbery with a deadly weapon merges with Count Number One.

         No mention of probation was made by anyone at any time during the hearing. The commitment record indicates a sentence of "life, all but 35 years suspended, " with the box for the probation period left blank.

         In 2011, Crawley initiated the present challenge to the legality of his sentence. Before addressing that claim, we pause to review the then-evolving jurisprudential landscape in Maryland that bears directly on the claim he makes.


         Cathcart v. State, Greco v. State, and their effect on this case

         Cathcart v. State

         On February 9, 2007, this Court decided Cathcart, 397 Md. at 320. The defendant Cathcart was convicted by a jury of first degree assault and common law false imprisonment. Id. at 322. He was sentenced to ten years in prison on the assault conviction and to life imprisonment with all but ten years suspended on the false imprisonment conviction. Id. Cathcart appealed and challenged the life sentence for false imprisonment as disproportionately excessive, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Maryland. Cathcart v. State, 169 Md.App. 379, 388 (2006). The Court of Special Appeals, noting in part that "no period of probation was imposed, " concluded that, "[i]f . . . appellant serves the entire unsuspended ten years, he will have no future risk of being retaken, as there is no probation to be violated." Id. at 389. Focusing on what was effectively a ten-year sentence, the Court of Special Appeals readily concluded that the sentence was not unconstitutionally disproportionate to the crime. Id. at 391.

         Cathcart sought and we granted a writ of certiorari to review his challenge to what he maintained was an illegal sentence. Before us, Cathcart advanced an argument different from his argument in the Court of Special Appeals. We summarized the new argument this way:

Acknowledging that, in the absence of a period of probation attached to the suspended part of the sentence, there will be no occasion for the suspended part of the sentence ever to be executed and that, as a result, he will never have to serve more than ten years on that sentence, [Cathcart] complains that the effect of the sentence [for common law false imprisonment] as articulated [by the Court of Special Appeals to be ten years] and when considered together with the ten-year sentence for assault, is to preclude any parole consideration for the entire duration of the twenty years.

Cathcart, 397 Md. at 324. To that argument, we responded:

We do not agree that the sentences imposed on Cathcart were in any way illegal. The sentence imposed on the assault conviction was well within the permissible statutory range, and, as we shall explain, the sentence imposed for false imprisonment, despite its wording, was not a life sentence and has no attribute or collateral consequence of a life sentence. What the court has effectively done is to impose ...

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