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Williams v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

January 18, 2019

CRAIG WILLIAMS
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Argued: October 3, 2018

          Circuit Court for Montgomery County Case No. 128680C

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

          OPINION

          GREENE, J.

         In this case, we consider whether the trial court committed harmless error when it denied the Petitioner's motion for new trial where the trial court gave a pattern jury instruction that erroneously omitted an element of the sole offense for which the petitioner was convicted. On November 21, 2016, a jury in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County convicted Petitioner Craig Williams ("Mr. Williams") of first-degree child abuse. On December 1, 2016, Mr. Williams filed a Motion for New Trial pursuant to Maryland Rule 4-331(a) ("Rule 4-331(a)"). The Circuit Court denied the motion on the grounds that the erroneous jury instruction did not have an impact on the defense's theory of the case. The trial court found that it was not in the interest of justice to grant a new trial. Thereafter, Mr. Williams noted an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, which affirmed his conviction. The Court of Special Appeals held that "the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the interest of justice did not require granting appellant a new trial." Before us, Mr. Williams seeks a reversal of that judgment on the grounds that the erroneous jury instruction was prejudicial error and warranted a new trial.

         FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Facts Leading to Charge of First-Degree Child Abuse

         Mr. Williams is the father of I.W., who was born on March 3, 2008 and was eight years old at the time of trial in November 2016. Breana Mapp ("Ms. Mapp") is I.W.'s biological mother. Mr. Williams married Nicole Williams ("Mrs. Williams"), his current wife, after the birth of I.W. Mr. and Mrs. Williams have three sons together. Mr. Williams, in addition to I.W., has another son from a previous relationship. Mrs. Williams has two children from a previous relationship. Altogether, Mr. and Mrs. Williams have seven children between them. For the first four years of the Williams's marriage, all children except for I.W. lived with them.

         In 2012, the Circuit Court for Washington County granted Mr. Williams sole physical and legal custody of I.W. because that court found that Ms. Mapp had sexually and physically abused I.W. Upon moving in with Mr. and Mrs. Williams, I.W.'s behavior showed signs of the sexual trauma and abuse he had suffered at the hands of his mother. For example, I.W. threw tantrums, hit himself and sexually attacked his siblings.[1]Christopher Cofone ("Mr. Cofone"), a social worker, began working with I.W. in May of 2014. Monica Reaves ("Ms. Reaves"), a social worker with Child Protective Services, investigated the report that I.W. had sexually abused his younger half-siblings, but she never considered removing I.W. from the family home.

         On November 19, 2015, Mr. Cofone determined that he could no longer help I.W. and recommended that I.W. see a psychiatrist. Although an appointment was scheduled for December 4, 2015, I.W.'s inappropriate behavior continued. According to Mr. Williams, on November 29, 2015, he first wrapped I.W. in plastic at night in an effort to stop I.W. from hurting himself and the other children. The following night, on November 30, 2015, Mr. Williams again wrapped I.W. in plastic wrap from his shoulder to the knee, but also secured I.W.'s hands with zip ties. The following morning I.W.'s wrists were chaffed and by the evening, I.W. had "puffy wrists, was drooling, and was not talking."

         Mr. Williams took I.W. to Shady Grove Hospital where I.W. was subsequently transferred to the Children's Hospital within Shady Grove. There, doctors diagnosed I.W. with compartment syndrome[2] and performed surgery on I.W.'s wrists.

         Facts Leading to Motion for New Trial

         On January 7, 2016, the grand jury for Montgomery County indicted Mr. Williams on one count of first-degree child abuse. A conviction of first-degree child abuse requires the State prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Williams abused I.W. and that the abuse resulted in "severe physical injury." Maryland Code Ann., Criminal Law Article § 3-601(b)(1)(ii) (2002, 2012 Repl. Vol., 2018 Supp.) ("Crim. Law Art."). "Severe physical injury" is a physical injury that:

1. creates a substantial risk of death; or
2. causes permanent or protracted serious:
A. disfigurement;
B. loss of the function of any bodily member or organ; or
C. impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.

Crim. Law Art. § 3-601(a)(5)(iii). For the jury instructions, at the request of both parties, the trial court instructed the jury using the Maryland Criminal Pattern Jury Instructions ("MPJI-CR"). The MPJI-CR defined "severe physical injury" in pertinent part as:

[P]hysical injury that (a) causes a substantial risk of death, (b) permanent or protracted serious disfigurement, or (c) causes loss or impairment of a member or organ of the body or its ability to function properly.

         Maryland State Bar Ass'n, Maryland Criminal Pattern Jury Instructions 4:07.1, at 472-73 (2016). After the jury found Mr. Williams guilty, Mr. Williams's counsel concluded that the pattern instruction was incorrect because it did not make clear that the terms "permanent or protracted" applied to both loss of function and impairment as well as disfigurement.

         This error was confirmed by the Honorable Michael Mason, who was not the presiding judge but at the time served as the Chair of the Maryland State Bar Association's Criminal Subcommittee of the Maryland Pattern Jury Instructions Standing Committee. In an email exchange between Mr. Williams's counsel and Judge Mason, Judge Mason explained that the Criminal Subcommittee remedied the error by changing the pattern instruction on "severe physical injury." Compare MPJI-CR 4:07.1, at 472-73 (2d ed. 2017)[3] with MPJI-CR 4:07.1 at 472-73 (2d ed. 2016). There is no dispute between the parties that the instruction was erroneous. On December 1, 2016, Mr. Williams filed a motion for new trial and referenced the email exchange between his counsel and Judge Mason. At the close of that hearing, the trial judge denied the motion for new trial.

         Appellate History

         On February 17, 2017, Mr. Williams noted an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals in which he questioned whether the trial court properly exercised its discretion in denying his motion for new trial. On January 23, 2018, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the trial court decision in an unreported opinion, holding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Mr. Williams's motion for new trial. The Court of Special Appeals first cited the broad discretion that is given to trial courts in granting motions for new trial. It then noted that the trial court "reviewed the erroneous instruction in light of the defense's theory of the case and in conjunction with the evidence adduced at trial." The intermediate appellate court, however, failed to apply the appropriate standard of review in this case, and mistakenly declared that the trial court properly weighed all factors in its interest of justice determination.

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

D[id the] circuit court abuse its discretion in denying a motion for new trial where the court gave a pattern jury instruction and, after the jury render[ed] its verdict, the court, prosecution, and defense all acknowledge[d] that the instruction erroneously omitted an element of the offense for which the defendant was convicted?

459 Md. 170, 185 A.3d 63 (2018).

         DISCUSSION

         Mr. Williams moved for a new trial under Maryland Rule 4-331(a). This Rule states that the court may, on motion filed by the defendant within ten days after the verdict, order a new trial if it finds that a new trial would be in the interest of justice. Md. Rule 4-331(a). In his motion, Mr. Williams asserted that the faulty jury instruction warranted the granting of a new trial because the instruction with regard to "severe physical injury" was unclear and therefore lowered the standard under which the jury could convict Mr. Williams. Specifically, according to Mr. Williams, the jury instruction did not make clear the definition of "severe physical injury" as defined in Crim. Law Art. § 3-601.

         Standard of Review

         At the outset, we observe that the parties disagree about the appropriate standard of review of the trial judge's denial of the motion for new trial. Petitioner Mr. Williams argues that because the jury had been misled as to the elements of the crime, the Circuit Court's discretion to deny the motion was non-existent. Mr. Williams also cites to Merritt v. State, 367 Md. 17, 785 A.2d 756 (2001), and contends that a harmless error standard is appropriate for appellate review. Ultimately, Mr. Williams maintains that under either an abuse of discretion or harmless error standard of review, the Court of Special Appeals and trial court should be reversed. Respondent State of Maryland argues that the standard of review in this case should be abuse of discretion. Respondent concedes that "in all but a very [few] instances, none of which are present here, this Court reviews a trial court's ruling on a Rule 4-331(a) new trial motion for an abuse of discretion."

         Respondent's argument that the abuse of discretion standard should apply in this case is primarily based on a claim that this Court's Opinion in Merritt is flawed. According to Respondent, Merritt is flawed because the Court relied on cases that either had not been queued up by a motion for new trial or did not "review[] the trial court's interest of justice determination." Specifically, Respondent argues that Merritt's references to Sherman v. State, 288 Md. 636, 421 A.2d 80 (1980), Taylor v. State, 352 Md. 338, 722 A.2d 65 (1998), State v. Stanley, 351 Md. 733, 720 A.2d 323 (1998), Pinkney v. State, 350 Md. 201, 711 A.2d 205 (1998), and Ware v. State, 348 Md. 19, 702 A.2d 699 (1997) are inapposite because the trial court in those cases "either found error when it did not exist or found that no error occurred when it had."

         Abuse of Discretion

         Pursuant to Rule 4-331(a), a trial judge may order a new trial if the court finds it is in the interest of justice to do so. This decision is ordinarily reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard, which this Court made clear in Buck v. Cam's Broadloom Rugs, Inc. 328 Md. 51, 57, 612 A.2d 1294, 1297 (1992) ("[A] trial court's order denying a motion for a new trial will be reviewed on appeal if it is claimed that the trial court abused its discretion. However, an appellate court does not generally disturb the exercise of a trial court's discretion in denying a motion for a new trial.") (quoting Mack v. State, 300 Md. 583, 600, 479 A.2d 1344 (1984)). Generally, abuse of discretion is the appropriate standard because the decision to grant or deny a motion for new trial under Rule 4-331(a) "depends so heavily upon the unique opportunity the trial judge has to closely observe the entire trial, complete with nuances, inflections, and impressions never to be gained from a cold record[.]" Buck, 328 Md. at 59, 612 A.2d at 1298.

         The abuse of discretion standard is largely deferential to the trial judge's decision. To reverse the denial of a new trial on appeal, when utilizing the abuse of discretion standard, the reviewing court must find that the "degree of probable prejudice [was] so great that it was an abuse of discretion to deny a new trial." Merritt, 367 Md. at 29, 785 A.2d at 763 (quoting Wernsing v. General Motors Corp., 298 Md. 406, 420, 470 A.2d 802, 809 (1984)). "Abuse occurs when a trial judge exercises discretion in an arbitrary or capricious manner or when he or she acts beyond the letter or reason of law." Campbell v. State, 373 Md. 637, 666, 821 A.2d 1, 18 (2003) (citation omitted).

         An Exception to the Abuse of Discretion Standard: Merritt v. State

         This Court in Merritt made an exception to the general rule that a trial court's decision on a motion for new trial is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. 367 Md. at 30-31, 785 A.2d at 764. Merritt explained:

[W]hen an alleged error is committed during the trial, when the losing party or that party's counsel, without fault, does not discover the alleged error during the trial, and when the issue is then raised by a motion for a new trial, we have reviewed the denial for the new trial motion under a standard of whether the denial was erroneous. . . . Also, in these criminal cases where we concluded that error did occur, the matter of prejudice was reviewed under the harmless error standard of [review].

Id. at 31, 785 A.2d at 764-65 (citing Taylor v. State, 352 Md. 338, 344, 354, 722 A.2d 65, 68, 72-73 (1998); State v. Stanley, 351 Md. 733, 749, 720 A.2d 323, 330-331 (1998); Pinkney v. State, 350 Md. 201, 217-218, 711 A.2d 205, 213-214 (1998); Ware v. State, 348 Md. 19, 34-35, 54-55, 702 A.2d 699, 706-707, 716 (1997)).[4]

         Merritt queued up for this Court the question of whether the denial of a motion for new trial can be erroneous given "the fact that prejudicial documentary evidence which was never entered into evidence was erroneously submitted to the jury at the start of its deliberations." 367 Md. at 23, 785 A.2d at 760. In that case, the State discovered two days after the trial ended that an exhibit that had been marked for identification, but had not been admitted into evidence, was present in the jury room during the jury's deliberations. Id. at 21-22, 785 A.2d at 759. The exhibit "included the application for the search and seizure warrant for Merritt's home, the warrant, the affidavit in support of the warrant, the inventory return, and a copy of Merritt's taped statement to police[.]" Id. The presence of the exhibit in the jury room was the result of the courtroom clerk's "erroneous belief that the exhibit had been admitted into evidence" and was not the fault of either party. Id. at 22, 785 A.2d at 759. The trial court denied Merritt's motion for new trial and concluded that there was "overpowering evidence" in the case to convict him. Id. at 23, 785 A.2d at 760. We reversed. Id. at 35, 785 A.2d at 767.

         In analyzing our appellate review of rulings on motions for new trials, we observed that "sometimes a trial court has virtually no discretion to deny a new trial motion[.]" Id. at 30, 785 A.2d at 764. Merritt's holding recognized the limitation of an abuse of discretion standard, such as in the situation where an error occurred at trial and was not discovered by either party until after the trial, neither party was at fault for not discovering the error, and the error was raised by a motion for new trial. We ultimately concluded in Merritt that "the result would be the same whether the denial of the motion for a new trial is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard or under an error standard." Id. at 31-32, 785 A.2d at 765.

         Maryland appellate courts have applied the Merritt standard in various contexts since 2001. Nero v. State, 144 Md.App. 333, 365-66, 798 A.2d 5, 24 (2002) ("[T]he denial of appellant's motion for new trial with respect to the police report should be reviewed under the standard of whether there was error committed and, if so, whether it was harmless error."); Jenkins v. State, 375 Md. 284, 299, 825 A.2d 1008, 1017 (2003) ("Thus, the standards of review in Merritt and in this case are different. We will review the trial judge's denial of petitioner's motion for a new trial in the case sub judice under an abuse of discretion standard."). Due to the high burden set by Merritt, our appellate courts have generally reviewed the trial court's decision for an abuse of discretion. See id.

         Applying a Harmless Error Standard is Appropriate ...


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