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State v. Payton

Court of Appeals of Maryland

November 1, 2018


          Argued: September 12, 2018

          Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 115224002

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


          GREENE, J.

         Petitioner, 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 trial.


         Mr. Payton was tried for murder and related charges before a jury in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City in September 2016.[1] The charges resulted from an incident on June 12, 2015, during which the victim died from multiple gunshot wounds.

         A 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.

         Also 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 print[2]taken 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").[3]The AFIS compared the lift card to its database and produced a candidate list.[4] 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") 2476078."[5]

         Mr. 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 number.

         At this 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."

         Subsequently, 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.

         After 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.[6] 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, I'm assuming?

         Mr. 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].

         Again, 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 purpose.

         Two 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 in isolation.

         The 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 permit it.

         The 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 ...

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