Argued: September 12, 2018
Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 115224002
Barbera, C.J. Greene, [*] Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten,
the State of Maryland, asks this Court to determine whether a
trial judge's decision to direct the State to reopen its
case-in-chief to recall an expert witness, after the defense
moved for judgment of acquittal, was a proper exercise of the
trial judge's discretion. We shall hold that there may be
circumstances when a trial judge in the exercise of his or
her discretion may allow the State to reopen its
case-in-chief after the prosecutor has rested. In the present
case, however, the trial judge abused that discretion. The
trial judge impermissibly weighed the nature of the charges
pending against Respondent Brandon Payton ("Mr.
Payton" or "Respondent") as a factor in his
decision to permit the reopening of the State's
case-in-chief. In addition, the judge impermissibly exceeded
the bounds of judicial impartiality when he directed the
State to clarify a gap that the trial judge perceived in the
State's case. Finally, pursuant to this Court's
established guidelines, it was inappropriate for the trial
judge to exercise his discretion to allow the State to reopen
its case-in-chief, rather than rule on Respondent's
motion for judgment of acquittal, where the trial judge had
determined that there was insufficient relevant evidence
presented to sustain a conviction. The trial judge's
decision compromised Respondent's right to a fair trial.
Therefore, we conclude that Respondent is entitled to a new
& PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Payton was tried for murder and related charges before a jury
in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City in September
2016. The charges resulted from an incident on
June 12, 2015, during which the victim died from multiple
witness to the shooting, Christopher Brinker, testified that
he believed that the shooter's hand touched the hood of
his vehicle when the shooter passed by in pursuit of the
victim. The handprint became a key part of the State's
case against Mr. Payton.
among the State's witnesses was Sean Dorr, a certified
latent print examiner employed by the Baltimore City Police
Department, who testified as an expert witness. Mr. Dorr
explained that there were three lift cards of the alleged
shooter's latent printtaken from the hood of Mr. Brinker's
car. One lift card was suitable for comparison. Mr. Dorr
scanned this lift card into the Automated Fingerprint
Identification System ("AFIS").The AFIS compared
the lift card to its database and produced a candidate
list. Mr. Dorr manually compared the
candidates' prints to the unknown latent print to
determine if one was an exact match. Ultimately, Mr. Dorr
testified that he identified the latent print "as an
impression of the left palm of Brandon Payton, State
Identification Number ("SID number")
Dorr also stated that on August 9, 2016 he took Mr.
Payton's fingerprints and made fingerprint cards. Mr.
Dorr testified that he did not compare the August 9 prints to
the prints from the AFIS; however, he verified that the
August 9 prints were associated with Mr. Payton's SID
point, defense counsel objected. Outside the presence of the
jury, defense counsel and the trial judge told the prosecutor
that they were confused. The judge assumed that the State was
trying connect the August 9 print to the print pulled from
the AFIS, and connect the print from the AFIS to the unknown
latent print. The judge, however, noted the gap in this
logic, stating, "that's not what [Mr. Dorr]
testified to." The trial judge instructed the prosecutor
to "go back" and "be as clear as you possibly
can as to what [was] compared."
the prosecutor continued questioning Mr. Dorr. Mr. Dorr
explained that he had "known prints" from the AFIS,
which were for SID number 2476078. Mr. Dorr said that he
established that the prints he took from Mr. Payton on August
9 were for SID number 2476078.
the State rested its case, Mr. Payton's counsel moved for
judgment of acquittal without particularizing how the State
had not proven its case. The trial judge asked the State
when, if ever, it connected the unknown latent print to Mr.
Payton. The State offered an explanation, and portions of Mr.
Dorr's testimony were replayed. The trial judge remained
unpersuaded that the State had connected the unknown latent
print to Mr. Payton and, therefore, was convinced that the
State had failed to place Mr. Payton at the scene of the
crime. The trial judge explained, "if I am
confused . . . are [the members of the jury] confused? I
mean, right now I have to get past this for my own
satisfaction to rule in your favor . . . but I'm just
totally at sea as to what [the State had] proven in this
case." He went on to say:
THE COURT: I am more than frustrated. Right this minute I
don't think you've made your case. So my question is,
do I simply grant the motion to dismiss which I could easily
do based on what I have heard of this testimony, because you
have not convinced me that [Mr. Payton], that you have put
this man at the scene of this crime.
Now, if you want me to allow you to reopen your case to call
your expert back in - and [Mr. Payton's counsel] I'm
sure is going to object to that - and ask that question, in
your judgment, to a reasonable degree of certainty, is the
print that was taken off of that car Mr. Brandon Payton's
print, if you want to call your witness back for five minutes
of testimony with whatever cross-examination, I am going to
permit that, because I think justice needs to be done and I -
generally speaking, I am generally speaking, not inclined to
punish clients - in your case, the public is your client -
for something that a lawyer may or may not have done. But I
don't think you've made your case at this moment.
I'm going to permit you to do that.
And [Mr. Payton's counsel], you're going to object,
Payton's counsel said she was "absolutely"
objecting. The court "d[idn't] blame" Mr.
Payton's counsel for challenging the reopening, but the
court persisted, explaining to the State:
THE COURT: I'm going to let you reopen your case Friday
morning for brief testimony to fill in the gap in your case -
THE STATE: Yes, your Honor.
THE COURT: Because I think you intended to do it and I
don't think you did it, and the fact that you can't
point me to right now - I mean, I've listened to what
you're talking about here and it is not convincing me at
all. I think you got lost in the weeds, quite frankly. And
so, I'm going to let you do it, but you know, right this
minute, I'm not seeing it. You're not convincing me
that you've made your case because you haven't put
this man on the scene of the crime. And -
THE STATE: Yes, your Honor.
THE COURT: Again, if you can't do it on Friday,
that's fine, then I will grant the motion.
THE STATE: Yes, your Honor.
THE COURT: So you have, you have - and I don't want to go
on for an hour and a half of testimony on Friday. You've
already laid the groundwork. You just simply didn't ask
the punch line question which to me was, is this the print of
this man [Mr. Payton].
Mr. Payton's counsel objected. Counsel reasoned that
recalling Mr. Dorr would be the last thing the jury heard,
and it would be in isolation to other evidence presented. The
trial court responded:
THE COURT: I understand your point, but I - you know, and
I'm not crazy about the notion, but as I said, if this
were a lesser crime than a murder, I might not be so
generous. It is a murder and I think Mr. Payton is - deserves
a fair trial and I've tried to do it and the State
deserves a fair trial and I'm trying to do that. So
I'm trying to balance these competing needs. And it may
very well be that if he's convicted, you'll have
grounds for appeal. I don't know. But at this point,
I'm going to let this - I'm going to let you re-call
your witness for a very brief period of time for that one
days later, Mr. Payton's counsel objected again to Mr.
Dorr re-testifying. Mr. Payton's counsel stated:
MR. PAYTON'S COUNSEL: I'm objecting to this entire
testimony with [Mr.] Dorr being allowed to come back and
testify. This is extremely prejudicial. This - we took a
break yesterday . . . . This, this rings loud and clear. This
is the crucial key piece of evidence. This is the only
evidence linking Mr. Payton and this is the last thing and .
. . in isolation that the jury's [going to] hear, and
this is extremely prejudicial. It's unfair, and I'm
asking the Court not to allow the State to reopen its case
and have [Mr.] Dorr re-testify to this prejudicial piece of
evidence at this point, the way it's presented right now
trial court, however, overruled the objection:
THE COURT: I think I have made clear that if this were a
simple drug possession case, I might, in fact, not be
allowing this. But this is a murder case. It's an
execution-style murder case. I think there is a strong public
interest in having definitive resolution of cases involving
crimes as serious as this one. And there - although there may
very well be some prejudice, I'm not sure, about doing
this in isolation or not, but I understand the point [Mr.
Payton's counsel is] making. I feel in this case though
that the public interest is sufficiently strong and the
possible prejudice is sufficiently speculative that I think
it's - I'm going to permit it. But - I'm going to
State recalled Mr. Dorr to the witness stand and sought to
assuage the trial judge's confusion by connecting the
fingerprint evidence to Respondent's SID number. Mr. Dorr
testified that the unknown lift card was identified as the
left palm of Mr. Payton, SID number 2476078. He also
testified that he took Mr. Payton's fingerprints on
August 9, 2016, and he ascertained that the SID number
associated with Mr. Payton is 2476078. Mr. Dorr went on to
explain that matching prints are designated to have the same