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State v. Weddington

Court of Appeals of Maryland

February 21, 2018

STATE OF MARYLAND
v.
ROBERT CLIFFORD WEDDINGTON

          Argued: January 8, 2018

         Circuit Court for Baltimore County Case Nos. 03-K-14-006299 03-K-14-006300

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

          OPINION

          Greene, J.

          In this case, we once again consider under what circumstances a defendant has properly invoked his right to request a discharge of counsel pursuant to Maryland Rule 4-215(e). Respondent Robert C. Weddington was charged and convicted of several counts of sexual abuse of minors. Although Mr. Weddington sent to the Circuit Court two pieces of correspondence in which he expressed dissatisfaction with his counsel, the Circuit Court did not take action on either correspondence until after Mr. Weddington's trials. After Mr. Weddington's trials concluded, the Circuit Court held two hearings on the Rule 4-215(e) request to discharge counsel. Thereafter, the Circuit Court denied Mr. Weddington's request as well as his motion for a new trial. Mr. Weddington noted an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, which vacated Mr. Weddington's convictions because the Circuit Court failed to hold a Rule 4-215(e) hearing prior to Mr. Weddington's trials. Before us, the State seeks a reversal of the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals on the bases that the trial court must have actual notice of a request to discharge counsel, that a defendant must raise such a complaint at trial, and that any error by the Circuit Court was harmless.

         FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In October 2014, Petitioner State of Maryland charged Respondent Robert C. Weddington ("Mr. Weddington" or "Respondent") with various counts of sexual abuse in relation to two minors, D.H. and R.W. The State proceeded with separate prosecutions against Respondent, with the charges relating to D.H. filed under case number 6299 and the charges relating to R.W. filed under case number 6300.

         On October 26, 2015, Mr. Weddington appeared before the Honorable Jan Alexander in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County for a motions hearing. At that hearing, the trial date was set for November 17, 2015. On October 28, 2015, just two days after his motions hearing, Mr. Weddington mailed a letter addressed to Judge Alexander, in which he stated, "I would like to let [my attorney] go because of her willingness to properly work in my behalf to proove [sic] im [sic] not guilty. The things I've asked her to do to proove [sic] alibis, wasn't done nor did she do anything I've asked of her." Mr. Weddington requested that he be referred to a panel attorney instead of another public defender. In response to this letter, the Circuit Court held a hearing on November 9, 2015, pursuant to Md. Rule 4-215(e), with the Honorable Robert Cahill, Jr. presiding. At the hearing, Mr. Weddington explained that he was dissatisfied with his counsel's lack of investigation of defense witnesses as well as her failure to retrieve documents that would support his defense. At the close of the hearing, Judge Cahill ruled that there was "no meritorious reason to discharge counsel" and denied Mr. Weddington's request. On November 17, 2015, the trial dates were re-set for February 2, 2016.

         Thereafter, on November 24, 2015, the Criminal Department of the Circuit Court received another letter ("November 24 Letter") from Mr. Weddington, which was addressed to Judge Alexander.[1] The letter provided the case numbers for both of his cases. The contents of the letter contained allegations that Mr. Weddington and his attorney were not getting along, that "words have been xchanged [sic] and I'm not trusting her at all" and that his attorney had failed to contact anyone or retrieve information that would establish the motivations of his accusers.[2] The only action taken by the Circuit Court in response to this letter, apparently, was to send a copy to the State's Attorney and the Public Defender.

         On January 20, 2016, Mr. Weddington sent yet another letter to the Circuit Court ("January 20 Letter"). This letter was also addressed to Judge Alexander and also contained both of Mr. Weddington's case numbers. The letter was date-stamped by the "Criminal Dept." on January 28, 2016. Mr. Weddington expressed in his letter, quoted here without correction: "There is a Great and terrible Injustice Being Done to me and Im writing you Asking for your help? I stand Accussed of some Horendouse CRimes." After expressing general grievances against the prosecutor, the first paragraph concludes, without correction, "And a Public Defender, who is sure of my guilt, dispite the truth and the law that says innocent until proven guielty. That she Refuses to help me And is withholding key material from my Discovery Packet." In the second paragraph, Mr. Weddington claims that his "two vindictive" ex-wives are using three "innocent children" as pawns to exact "rage" on him. The next two paragraphs more specifically explained his complaints against his attorney, provided here without correction:

I was offered A Deal of 16 years, going above my guidelines for this matter. When I question my attorney on this, she said my guidelines did'nt matter. Talking down to me like I was guilty. I am sure cause of the nature of the charge and her gender, She is completly Bias towards me and not working in my best interest on this case At All. She lied to me About her putting my bail review in, she's gotten up in the middle of And interview walked out into another room, twice then end the interview. I asked her to see if the State would give the girls moms and them a lie detector test to prove who's lying. . . . Also I begging the court To Reasign me a Attorney or Allow me to get my own?

         The only notation on this letter was the case number 6299 circled and the trial judge's name written below it. For reasons unknown, the trial judge did not become aware of the January 20 Letter until February 16, 2016, well after Mr. Weddington's trials.[3]

         On February 3, 2016, a jury convicted Mr. Weddington of sexual abuse of a minor and second-degree child abuse in case number 6300. On February 5, 2016, a separate jury convicted Mr. Weddington of three counts of second-degree rape and one count of sexual abuse of a minor in case number 6299.

         Post-Trial Hearings in the Circuit Court

         On March 14, 2016, the Circuit Court held a hearing, during which the court asked Mr. Weddington to explain his reasons for requesting a discharge of his counsel as well as his reasons for not bringing that request to the trial judge's attention at the time of trial. Mr. Weddington insisted that his counsel did not seek what he believed were potentially exculpatory records, such as his medical records and vehicle title. Mr. Weddington also complained that his counsel gave conflicting advice about whether to testify at trial. The Circuit Court deferred making a ruling because the trial judge wanted to read the transcript of the previous Rule 4-215(e) hearing held on November 9, 2015 before Judge Cahill.

         On March 23, 2016, the Circuit Court reconvened. At the start of the hearing, the hearing judge acknowledged that Mr. Weddington's January 20 Letter was not in the Court's file prior to his February 2, 2016 trial.[4] The judge explained that there was "no explanation for that [other] than the Clerk's office is backed up." The court again pressed Mr. Weddington for an explanation as to why he did not bring up the existence of his letter with the judge prior to trial. The trial judge also asked Mr. Weddington's counsel, specifically, whether she followed up appropriately in order to prepare for trial. The judge denied Mr. Weddington's request to discharge counsel, explaining:

Well, I've had an opportunity to review the file, I remember the case, I've reviewed the discussion you had with Judge Cahill. Your assertion - that -- there's a Harford County case, the name escapes me offhand, where -- where the Court talks about the fact that the defendant sent a letter to the Court concerning discharge of counsel. The Court did not conduct an inquiry in that case. Ultimately, the case was reversed. That's not the situation here.
You sent a letter to Judge Cahill, that letter that Judge Cahill read into the record of October the 28th, 2015. Then he allowed you the opportunity to express your reasons why you wanted to discharge counsel. Judge Cahill, based on all the information provided, denied your request to discharge counsel. Although he told you he couldn't make you keep Ms. Aist, if you wanted to represent yourself, you could. You continued with her representation.
The subsequent documents that you submitted, one of which was not in the file when Court commenced trial, you -- you can't simply sit back on your laurels and not make a -- some sort of effort to let the Court know that you were dissatisfied, especially since you wrote subsequent to your interview or the -- the discussion with Judge Cahill.
In spite of all that, none of the information that I have considered, in terms of your discussion with Judge Cahill and the contents of the letter, would make any difference. You know, in terms of [your counsel's] preparation, I think Judge Cahill commented she is one of the more experienced lawyers that this Court has the -- the pleasure to have before it. You were very lucky to have such a -- a well experienced attorney.
So this Court finds as a fact that nothing contained in your subsequent written request or the dialogue you've had with this Court would warrant the discharge of counsel, so your request to discharge counsel is denied.
Thereafter, Mr. Weddington's motion for new trial was denied. Subsequently, Mr. Weddington noted a timely appeal to the Court of Special Appeals.

         Appellate ...


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