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Cornish v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

October 30, 2018


          Argued: September 12, 2018

          Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 115363026

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


          GREENE, J.

         In this case, we consider under what circumstances a defendant has the right to a hearing upon filing a Maryland Rule 4-331(c) Motion for New Trial based on newly discovered evidence. More specifically, we must decide whether the trial judge was legally correct in denying Petitioner Ronald Cornish ("Mr. Cornish") a hearing under the Rule. Petitioner was charged and convicted of first degree murder, use of a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence, and other related offenses. Thereafter, Mr. Cornish was sentenced to life imprisonment plus twenty years. Approximately two weeks after his sentencing, Mr. Cornish filed a Motion for a New Trial under Md. Rule 4-331(c) ("Rule 4-331") based on newly discovered evidence. The Circuit Court for Baltimore City denied the motion for a new trial without a hearing. Thereafter, Mr. Cornish noted an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, which upheld the Circuit Court's denial of Mr. Cornish's motion. The Court of Special Appeals held that the evidence being offered was not "newly discovered" for purposes of Rule 4-331(c). Cornish v. State, No. 2369, 2016 Term & No. 222, 2017 Term (Md. Ct. Spec. App., January 8, 2018). Before us, Mr. Cornish seeks a reversal of that judgment on the ground that his motion met the prima facie pleading requirement and, therefore, a hearing was required to determine the merits of his motion.


         The events underlying Mr. Cornish's conviction of first degree murder and related offenses involved a drug deal gone awry. On November 8, 2012, Warren Boone ("Mr. Boone") was found dead. Through the investigation of his death, the police discovered that Mr. Boone sold marijuana and that he was planning a drug transaction with an individual known as "Black" on November 7, 2012. Police determined that "Black" was Richard Pope ("Mr. Pope"). Mr. Pope had called Mr. Boone to ask if he wanted to buy marijuana from Mr. Cornish. Mr. Pope and Mr. Cornish met Mr. Boone at Bumper to Bumper, an auto body repair shop on Belvedere Avenue located in Baltimore City. Mr. Pope and Mr. Cornish got into Mr. Boone's car and Mr. Cornish directed Mr. Boone to an apartment complex.

         According to Mr. Pope's testimony at trial, upon arriving at the complex and getting out of the car, he heard a struggle and two gunshots that led to Mr. Boone's death. He also testified to seeing a revolver. At that point, according to Mr. Pope, he "was more or less in shock. So [he] did whatever [Mr. Cornish] told [him] to do." Mr. Pope also testified that after the gunshots he was afraid and felt obligated to "follow through."

         Mr. Pope then claimed that Mr. Cornish instructed Mr. Pope to help drag the body out of the car, which he did. Upon dragging the body into the woods, Mr. Pope and Mr. Cornish got into Mr. Boone's car and drove to Bessemer Avenue in Dundalk. The next day, Mr. Pope and Mr. Cornish drove Mr. Boone's car to his house which they burglarized. After leaving the house, Mr. Pope and Mr. Cornish drove by the crime scene and saw police had used tape to cordon off the area. They decided to get rid of Mr. Boone's car by setting it on fire and abandoning it in the woods in West Baltimore.

         At trial, Mr. Pope acknowledged that, in his discussions with police, initially, he downplayed his involvement in the murder of Mr. Boone but that he later implicated himself in the events. For example, when the police first spoke to him in November 2012, and on a second occasion, he did not admit that he had been with Mr. Cornish when Mr. Boone was killed, when Mr. Boone's home was burglarized, or when Mr. Boone's car was set on fire. At that time, Mr. Pope told the police that he had introduced Mr. Boone and Mr. Cornish and then left. At trial, Mr. Pope contradicted this statement and admitted to being with Mr. Cornish when Mr. Boone was killed and during the subsequent crimes. Upon being asked why he had suddenly decided to admit to being present during the crime, Mr. Pope said it was the "right thing to do."

         Thereafter, on November 3, 2016, a jury of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City convicted Mr. Cornish. On January 9, 2017 a judge sentenced Mr. Cornish to life plus twenty years for first degree murder and an additional fifteen years concurrent for possession of a regulated firearm with a disqualifying conviction. Unknown to Mr. Cornish or his defense counsel, prior to the crimes that occurred on November 8, 2012 and during the Cornish trial, Mr. Pope was under investigation for various crimes. As a result of those investigations, and unknown to Mr. Cornish and his defense attorney, Mr. Pope gave certain statements to investigators that directly contradicted the testimony he gave at Mr. Cornish's trial with respect to the murder of Mr. Boone. Once Mr. Cornish learned of Mr. Pope's statements to investigators, Mr. Cornish filed a motion for new trial in the Circuit Court. His motion alleged that two statements made by Mr. Pope, one in May 2013 and another on December 9, 2016, constituted newly discovered evidence.

         The May 2013 statement provided the following details. Mr. Pope, in referring to the Boone murder, said that "apparently," Mr. Cornish killed Mr. Boone two weeks after a bank robbery. In this interview, Mr. Pope maintained that he hooked up Mr. Boone and Mr. Cornish for a weed deal. He then indicated that he saw Mr. Cornish with Mr. Boone's car a few days later.

         On the other hand, the December 2016 statement explained in detail why Mr. Pope decided, on the morning of Mr. Cornish's trial, to testify against Mr. Cornish. In December of 2016, William Kanwisher ("Mr. Kanwisher"), a staff investigator with the Federal Public Defender, interviewed Mr. Pope at the Roxbury Correctional Institution because he was a potential witness in the matter of United States v. Ronald Eaton, JFM 14-0584. Mr. Pope told Mr. Kanwisher that on the day of Mr. Cornish's trial, Det. Kershaw woke him up at 4:30 a.m., drove him around for five minutes, then confronted Mr. Pope with cell phone data that confirmed that he was at the scene of Mr. Boone's murder. Det. Kershaw then threatened to charge Mr. Pope with the murder if he did not testify.

         According to Mr. Kanwisher's affidavit, on the morning of trial, Mr. Pope admitted that he was present at the time of Mr. Boone's murder and agreed to testify against Mr. Cornish on the condition that he receive immunity. Det. Kershaw called the Assistant State's Attorney to discuss immunity. Mr. Pope had intended not to testify, but upon Det. Kershaw's discussions with the Assistant State's Attorney about immunity, Mr. Pope testified at Mr. Cornish's trial, as detailed in the preceding paragraphs.

         On January 26, 2017, Mr. Cornish filed a motion entitled "Motion for a New Trial Pursuant to Maryland Rule 4-331(b); 4-331(c) & Brady v. Maryland" and, after the State's reply, Mr. Cornish supplemented his motion. On March 15, 2017, the Circuit Court denied the motion without a hearing. Mr. Cornish appealed the denial to the Court of Special Appeals which held, in an unreported opinion, that the trial court did not err in denying the motion for new trial. The intermediate appellate court concluded, without further explanation, that Mr. Cornish did not establish a prima facie basis for granting a new trial. The court assessed the merits of Mr. Cornish's pleading and concluded that "there was no substantial or significant possibility that the jury's verdict would have been affected." Finally, the Court of Special Appeals determined that Mr. Pope's change in his version of events on the day of trial "did not constitute 'newly discovered evidence[.]'"

         This Court granted Mr. Cornish's petition for writ of certiorari on April 9, 2018. We granted certiorari to answer the following question:

Where a criminal defendant has satisfied all the pleading requirements entitling him to a hearing on his motion for new trial pursuant to Md. Rule 4-331 (c) and (f) and the circuit court summarily denies the motion without a hearing, does an appellate court err in affirming the circuit court by ruling on the merits of the motion?

458 Md. 579, 183 A.3d 155 (2018).


         Parties' Arguments

         Mr. Cornish contends that Mr. Pope's May 2013 and December 2016 statements constitute newly discovered evidence. Pursuant to Rule 4-331(c) and (f), Mr. Cornish suggests that he fulfilled the Rule's pleading requirements and that the Circuit Court was required to grant him a hearing on the merits of his motion. He posits that the statements established, on a prima facie basis, that the evidence was newly discovered, could not have been discovered by due diligence in time for a Rule 4-331(a) motion, and were material enough to affect the outcome of his trial. Furthermore, Mr. Cornish argues that the Court of Special Appeals, in affirming the trial court's decision, ruled on the merits of the motion as opposed to the sufficiency of the pleading. It is Mr. Cornish's position that, based on the pleading requirements, he is entitled to a hearing on his motion.

         To the contrary, the State contends that Mr. Cornish did not fulfill the pleading requirements and, accordingly, is not entitled to a hearing on the merits of his motion. The State argues that the statements offered by Mr. Cornish are not "newly discovered" or material but are "merely impeaching and cumulative." If this Court were to hold that Mr. Cornish is entitled to a hearing on his Rule 4-331(c) motion, according to the State, that holding would contravene the intent of Rule 4-331(f) and its goal of judicial efficiency.

         Md. Rule 4-331

         Rule 4-331 pertains to motions for new trial. Mr. Cornish relied on subsection (c)(1) as the basis for his motion. A motion filed pursuant to subsection (c) must meet the requirements contained in subsection (e). Assuming the requirements of subsection (e) are met, the motion must also meet the requirements of subsection (f) in order to entitle petitioner to a hearing on the motion. In pertinent part, Rule 4-331 provides:

(c) Newly discovered evidence. The court may grant a new trial or other appropriate relief on the ground of newly discovered evidence which could not have been discovered by due diligence in time to move for a new trial pursuant to section (a)[1] of this Rule:
(1) on motion filed within one year after the later of (A) the date the court imposed sentence or (B) the date the court received a mandate issued by the final appellate court to consider a direct appeal from the judgment or a belated appeal permitted as post conviction relief[.]
* * *
(e) Form of motion. A motion filed under this Rule ...

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