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Lopez v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

March 29, 2018

CURTIS MAURICE LOPEZ
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Argued: October 6, 2017

          Circuit Court for Montgomery County Case No. 119715

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

          OPINION

          GETTY, J.

         "The screen is a magic medium. It has such power that it can retain interest as it conveys emotions and moods that no other art form can hope to tackle."

         Stanley Kubrick (1970).

         Does this "magic medium" by its very nature convey such overpowering emotion to warrant a permanent ban from the courtroom? Does the "magic medium" in the form of a victim impact video with background music constitute "irrelevant information or inflammatory rhetoric" that would "stir strong emotions that might overcome the restraints of reason" of the sentencing judge? These questions underscore the two opposing interests in this appeal: first, a criminal defendant's interest in a fair sentencing proceeding in which the sentencing judge is not diverted from his or her objective role; and second, a victim's interest in conveying the impacts of the defendant's crimes to the sentencing judge. This Court is once again called upon to balance these opposing interests in light of the law. In this instance, this Court must also strike a balance in light of this "magic medium" of technology that has become ever-present in Maryland courtrooms.

         In short, we are asked to determine whether victim impact evidence in the form of a video, displaying more than one hundred photographs of the victims, with accompanying music ("the video" or "victim impact video") is impermissible at a sentencing hearing. Specifically, this Court must decide if such victim impact evidence violates any of the following statutory or constitutional provisions: § 11-402 of the Criminal Procedure Article ("CP") of the Maryland Code, which governs victim impact statements; a defendant's Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment; or a defendant's due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

         For the reasons that follow, we first conclude that a sentencing judge has discretion to permit any additional form of victim impact evidence outside the constraints of CP § 11-402, governing written victim impact statements, and CP § 11-403, governing victim impact testimony. We also hold that all prepared victim impact evidence, not including victim impact testimony, must be limited to the content prescribed under CP § 11-402(e), listing the subject matters permitted in victim impact statements. This Court further holds that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit a sentencing judge from considering victim impact evidence at a defendant's noncapital sentencing proceeding. Lastly, we hold that the defendant's Fourteenth Amendment due process rights were not violated in this case because the disputed victim impact evidence did not inflame the passions of the sentencing judge more than the facts of the crime. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

         BACKGROUND

         A grand jury in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County indicted the Petitioner, Curtis Maurice Lopez ("Mr. Lopez"), with two counts of first degree murder, one count of kidnapping, one count of child kidnapping, and one count of robbery.[1] On January 4, 2013, Mr. Lopez entered an Alford plea[2] as to both first degree murder counts, the robbery count, and one merged count of child kidnapping. [3] During the plea hearing, the parties presented the court with an agreement that both the State and Mr. Lopez would be free to argue the appropriate sentence at a separate hearing. The State reminded the court that it intended to request a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. After accepting the agreement as to sentencing, the circuit court questioned Mr. Lopez about his rights, his understanding of the elements of the charged crimes, and his understanding of the plea. The court found that Mr. Lopez was proceeding by way of an Alford plea freely, voluntarily, and intelligently.

         In support of the plea, the State presented the following proffer of facts[4] in connection with the murders of Jane McQuain ("Jane") and William McQuain ("William"). Mr. Lopez and Jane were married on April 23, 1988, in a Pennsylvania prison while Mr. Lopez was serving a sentence for attempted murder in a separate case. Though Jane and Mr. Lopez kept in contact and visited occasionally, the two did not live as husband and wife. Jane gave birth to a non-marital son, William, while Mr. Lopez was still serving his sentence in prison. Jane and William lived in Germantown, Maryland, and Jane worked as a receptionist at an accounting firm in Gaithersburg. When he was released from prison, Mr. Lopez moved to North Carolina.

         In September 2011, Jane used inherited money from her deceased uncle to purchase a new car and a flat-screen television. After learning of the inheritance, Mr. Lopez contacted Jane and informed her of his plans to visit on September 16, 2011. Mr. Lopez stayed with Jane and William in their condominium on Briarcliff Terrace during his visit. On Friday, September 30, 2011, Jane took William to his friend's residence for a sleepover. That night, Mr. Lopez bludgeoned Jane with a thirty-pound weight and stabbed her multiple times, leaving her body wrapped in blankets in her condominium. On the morning of Saturday, October 1, 2011, Mr. Lopez used Jane's cell phone to text William that he should come downstairs to be picked up from the sleepover. Mr. Lopez drove William from the sleepover to a storage facility, where Mr. Lopez retrieved a baseball bat among other items. After driving William around for four to five hours, making multiple trips to and from the storage facility, Mr. Lopez proceeded to drive to the woods off of Clarksburg Road. Mr. Lopez then killed William by swinging the baseball bat at William's head at least four times, splitting William's skull into thirty-six pieces. Mr. Lopez then discarded William's body slightly off the road. Mr. Lopez drove Jane's new car back to North Carolina with several of Jane's and William's belongings, including the flat-screen television. Based on this sequence of events, the Montgomery County police obtained an arrest warrant for Mr. Lopez. Police located Mr. Lopez at an Econo Lodge in North Carolina, found Jane's new car parked outside of the Econo Lodge, and retrieved Jane's bank card in the hotel room. After the State's proffer, the circuit court concluded that the State had set forth sufficient facts to sustain a guilty finding as to all counts in the plea.

         On June 10, 2013, the court held a sentencing hearing, during which Mr. Lopez requested that the court impose concurrent life sentences, concurrent term-of-year sentences, and the possibility of parole. Preliminarily, Mr. Lopez moved to exclude a video with photographs of the two victims set to background music, which the victims' representative, Mr. William McQuain ("Mr. McQuain"), Jane's brother, intended to play at sentencing. Mr. Lopez contended that the video did not constitute permissible victim impact evidence and violated Mr. Lopez's constitutional rights. The defense also argued that another judge should conduct an in camera review of the video to determine whether it should be excluded or redacted. The State countered that the sentencing judge has discretion to allow victim impact evidence, and that all judges are able to rule on evidentiary matters and proceed to consider only the permitted evidence. Counsel for Mr. McQuain argued that the video was completely appropriate for sentencing because it showed the identity and characteristics of the victims. Ultimately, the sentencing judge denied Mr. Lopez's request for another judge to conduct an in camera review as well as his motion to exclude the video. The sentencing judge concluded:

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 victims' 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.

         The State summarized the facts of the crime, showed a PowerPoint depicting pictures of the crime scenes, submitted written victim impact statements, and presented nine witnesses who gave victim impact testimony. Mr. McQuain, the victims' representative, testified about his sister, Jane, and his nephew, William, as well as the struggles he faces as a result of the death of his family members. At the end of his testimony, Mr. McQuain requested that he be able to play the video of photographs of the two victims. The video begins with the title, "The Story of Jane and William, " which appears on the screen while church bells are playing in the background. The video footage then displays childhood photographs of Jane set to the song "Sort of (Instrumental)" by Ingrid Michaelson, which is fittingly characterized as instrumental music. As the song slows down, photographs of Jane during her adult life are shown while the angle zooms in on Jane's image. After approximately one minute, the video displays photographs of Jane holding William as a baby while the instrumental music continues. The video then depicts two-and-one-half minutes of photographs of Jane and William spending time together as well as photos of William engaging in childhood activities, during which the same instrumental music plays in the background. When the first song ends, the song "Yeah, Yeah" by Sam Means plays for approximately two minutes of additional family photos and childhood photographs of William. The last photograph of Jane and William embracing is shown for approximately twenty seconds while the sound of church bells again plays in the background. The video then shows a list of credits for people who shared photographs, the music, and the video production. The credits are set to the sound of the first song, "Sort of (Instrumental)" by Ingrid Michaelson. The footage ends with a graphic displaying the words "All Memories By Jane & William" as the instrumental music fades out. The video lasts a total of six minutes and twelve seconds, contains approximately 115 photographs, and includes two songs along with the sound of church bells.

         After the video was played, defense counsel moved to have the sentencing judge recused because of the video's prejudicial nature. Specifically, counsel for Mr. Lopez stated:

Your Honor, we've [] previously objected to this video being shown. Certainly the State has a right to put on its presentation, but this is so unduly prejudicial [] in this matter, that Your Honor we would ask the [c]ourt to possibly recuse[.] I mean, this obviously just appeals to emotions, which something like this goes [to], but this is just, this is over the top.

         The sentencing judge denied the motion to recuse, concluding that the victims' representative was entitled to show photographs. The defense then requested that the court make a copy of the video for the appellate record, which the sentencing judge granted.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the sentencing judge gave her oral ruling:
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, which were submitted to the [c]ourt last week.
** *
[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."
** *
Frankly, it is too bad the death penalty is no longer available, as the circumstances of this case and your criminal history truly would warrant that penalty.

         Ultimately, the court sentenced Mr. Lopez to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the first degree murder of Jane, a consecutive term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the first degree murder of William, a consecutive term of thirty years for child kidnapping, and a concurrent term of twelve years for robbery.

         Mr. Lopez filed an application for leave to appeal on July 9, 2013, asserting that the video was inadmissible at sentencing.[5] The Court of Special Appeals granted the leave to appeal on December 22, 2014. In a reported opinion filed on February 2, 2017, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the judgment of the sentencing judge, holding that the court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the video at sentencing and the video did not violate Mr. Lopez's constitutional rights.[6] Lopez v. State, 231 Md.App. 457, 489 (2017). Mr. Lopez filed a petition for writ of certiorari in this Court on March 10, 2017, which this Court granted on May 9, 2017. Lopez v. State, 453 Md. 8 (2017). Mr. Lopez presents one question for our review, [7] which we have rephrased as follows: Did the sentencing court err when it permitted the victims' representative to play a video of photographs depicting the lives of the victims with accompanying music at sentencing because the video: (A) constituted improper victim impact evidence in violation of CP § 11-402; (B) violated Mr. Lopez's Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment; or (C) violated Mr. Lopez's due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment?

         DISCUSSION

         The State of Maryland has expressed a clear public policy throughout the last thirty-five years to provide broad rights to crime victims. In 1982, the Maryland General Assembly enacted the primary statute in pursuit of that public policy goal: Maryland's first victim impact evidence statute. 1982 Md. Laws, ch. 494. This victim impact legislation required a presentence investigation report to include a victim impact statement if the defendant committed certain crimes that caused injuries to a victim. Id. The original statute also allowed the State's Attorney to submit a victim impact statement in the event a presentence investigation was not requested. Id. The sponsor of this legislation, Senator John J. Garrity, stated that the purpose of the statute was to "provide[] the mechanism to place at the judge's disposal all the facts regarding impact of the crime on the victim." Reid v. State, 302 Md. 811, 816 (1985). This Court emphasized that "the intent of [the original victim impact evidence statute] was to provide the victim access to the sentencing process by ensuring that at least in one way the effects of the crime on the victim will be presented to and considered by the sentencing judge." Id. at 816-17.

         In order to provide victims with the right to present their viewpoint in all cases, the General Assembly enacted Senate Bill 132 the following year, requiring the sentencing court to consider a presentence investigation report with victim impact statements in death penalty cases. 1983 Md. Laws, ch. 297. "It is apparent that the legislature intended that victim impact statements be admissible in capital case sentencing proceedings." Lodowski v. State, 302 Md. 691, 738-39 (1985), vacated on other grounds, 475 U.S. 1078 (1986). In 1986, Maryland enacted victim impact testimony legislation, seeking to expand the ways in which victims could present evidence at sentencing proceedings by allowing victims, a member of the victim's immediate family, or a victim's representative to address the sentencing court, as long as permitted by the sentencing judge. 1986 Md. Laws, ch. 127.

         In addition to the growing statutory recognition, Maryland afforded victims constitutional protection when the Maryland General Assembly passed and the people ratified Article 47 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. 1994 Md. Laws, ch. 102. The constitutional right for victims specifically provides:

(a) A victim of crime shall be treated by agents of the State with dignity, respect, and sensitivity during all phases of the criminal justice process.
(b) In a case originating by indictment or information filed in a circuit court, a victim of crime shall have the right to be informed of the rights established in this Article and, upon request and if practicable, to be notified of, to attend, and to be heard at a criminal justice proceeding, as these rights are implemented and the terms "crime", "criminal justice proceeding", and "victim" are specified by law.

Md. Const. Decl. of Rts. Art. 47. In discussing the constitutional provision, this Court described "Article 47 [as] 'the strong public policy that victims should have more rights and should be informed of the proceedings, that they should be treated fairly, and in certain cases, that they should be heard.'" Hoile v. State, 404 Md. 591, 605 (2008) (citing Lopez- Sanchez v. State, 388 Md. 214, 229 (2005)). "The mandate of the people is clear. In response to that mandate, trial judges must give appropriate consideration to the impact of crime upon the victims." Cianos v. State, 338 Md. 406, 413 (1995).

         Following the ratification of the victims' constitutional right, the General Assembly enacted the Victims' Rights Act of 1997. 1997 Md. Laws, ch. 311. The overall purposes of the Victims' Rights Act of 1997 were to "expand[] victims' rights laws to include juvenile proceedings, " to require enhanced notifications to victims "relating to parole and mandatory supervision, " as well as to allow victims "to request that offenders be prohibited from having contact with the victim as a condition of release or supervision." Dep't Legis. Servs., Fiscal and Policy Note, Senate Bill 173, at 1 (1997 Session).[8] The trend of expanding victims' rights continued as recently as 2015 when the legislature enacted "Alex's Law." 2014 Md. Laws, ch. 151.[9] Specifically, Alex's Law requires sentencing courts to hear from a victim or the victim's representative before imposing a sentence, unless deemed impracticable, even in cases in which the prosecuting attorney does not request that the court consider such testimony. See Dep't Legis. Servs., Fiscal and Policy Note, Senate Bill 272, at 1 (2014 Session).[10] These statutes, as well as Article 47 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, demonstrate the State's desire to implement broad victims' rights in criminal proceedings, including sentencing.

         However, the legislature and this Court have also made clear that victims' rights are not without limitation. In fact, the original victim impact evidence statute in Maryland included a list of the acceptable content in a victim impact statement. See 1982 Md. Laws, ch. 494. Specifically, the original bill prescribed:

(3) A victim impact statement shall:
(i) identify the victim of the offense;
(ii) itemize any economic loss suffered by the victim as a result of the offense;
(iii) identify any physical injury suffered by the victim as a result of the offense along with its ...

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