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State v. Robertson

Court of Appeals of Maryland

April 2, 2019

STATE OF MARYLAND
v.
HARRY MALIK ROBERTSON

          Argued: January 8, 2019

          Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 116111012.

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, Wilner, Alan M. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned) JJ.

          OPINION

          HOTTEN, J.

         Harry Malik Robertson ("Robertson") was involved in an altercation at a residential area near Morgan State University. The incident culminated in the stabbing death of one of its participants. A jury in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City found Robertson guilty of accessory after the fact to murder, but acquitted him of first- and second-degree murder and of carrying a weapon openly with intent to injure. On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals held that the trial court erred in permitting the State to question Robertson regarding his participation in a previous, unrelated incident during which a knife had been brandished ("previous incident"), because the door had not been opened for questioning by the State. The Court of Special Appeals also held that, because the introduction of the previous incident was not harmless error, Robertson's conviction for accessory after the fact must be reversed and the case remanded for a new trial. On appeal, the State presents the following questions for our review:

1. What is the appropriate standard of review of a trial court's ruling that a party has opened the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence?
2. Applying the appropriate standard of review, did the [Court of Special Appeals] err by substituting its judgment for the trial court's determination that [Robertson] had opened the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence?

         For reasons discussed infra, we find that application of whether particular evidence may be admitted based on the legal principle of "opening the door" is reviewed de novo. We further conclude that defense counsel opened the door, thereby enabling the State to question Robertson regarding the previous incident. However, despite the application of the open door doctrine, the State used the evidence of Robertson's participation in the prior incident in a manner that exceeded the scope of the doctrine. Accordingly, we shall affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

         BACKGROUND

         1. Factual Background

         On the evening of February 1, 2016, Robertson, then a student at Coppin State University, was involved in an altercation between two groups of men near the Morgan State University campus. The fight concluded after one of the participants, Gerald Williams ("the decedent"), was stabbed and ultimately died from his wounds.

         The impetus for the fight began nearly a week earlier. Daequon Gordon, a Prince George's Community College student, purchased ten dollars' worth of marijuana from Brandon Parker, a Morgan State University student. Gordon purchased the marijuana with a counterfeit fifty-dollar bill and received the marijuana and forty dollars in return.

         When Parker learned that the fifty-dollar bill was counterfeit, he contacted Gordon and demanded his money back. A meeting was arranged, and both Parker and Gordon showed up to the meeting with friends. Among them was the decedent, who was one of Gordon's friends, and Robertson, who was one of Parker's friends. The subsequent details were in dispute at trial.

         Gordon, testifying for the State, contended that when the two groups met that evening, he told Parker, "I got your money. You'll have to take it from me. I'm not paying you." Gordon then punched Parker, provoking a larger fight among the group. As Robertson and others ran from the area, the decedent collapsed and Gordon, observing that the decedent was bleeding, called an ambulance.

         Another State witness, Isaiah McClin, who fought as part of the decedent's group, testified that "all hell broke loose" after the groups met, and though he did not recall who was fighting, he heard the decedent yell something during the fight, shortly after which the fight abruptly ended. Thereafter, McClin observed the decedent lying on the ground and "bleeding out." Although McClin did not see the stabbing, or observe Respondent in possession of a weapon, he recalled Robertson and the decedent fighting at some point.

         D'ana Glenn, another witness for the State, testified that she observed the altercation and never saw a large group fighting with each other. Rather, Glenn testified, only Robertson and the decedent were fighting. She stated that she saw the decedent charge towards Robertson, and Robertson, in an effort to "push forward toward him," stabbed the decedent. Upon further examination, Glenn conceded that her view of Robertson was not "that clear" and that she only saw Robertson holding a knife after "[he] and the decedent 'impact[ed].'"

         Robertson denied stabbing the decedent and further denied having a knife. He contended that he fought two men during the fight: Mathew Agogo and McClin. Robertson also testified that he heard the decedent say "I'm bleeding."

         Robertson testified that after the men dispersed, he told his cousin, Ron, who was also engaged in the fight, that they should leave. Robertson got into Ron's car along with four of their friends. One of the friends was Abayomi Akinwold.

         During the drive, Robertson testified that Akinwold was "beating himself up" and had blood on his hand and jacket. At one point, the car stopped, Akinwold exited, and tossed a knife into a storm drain. The car subsequently stopped at a friend's home, which Akinwold entered. When Akinwold returned to the car moments later, his hands were clean. Ron drove the friends to their respective homes, leaving Robertson at his mother's house.

         Following his arrest, Robertson was detained at the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center. James Alston, who was also detained at the facility on a probation violation, testified that Robertson admitted that he had killed someone during a fight. Alston denied receiving anything in exchange for his testimony, but admitted that his probation violation had been dropped prior to Robertson's trial.

         2. Procedural Background

         Proceeding in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City

         At the beginning of the trial, Robertson faced charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and carrying a dangerous weapon openly with intent to injure. At the end of Robertson's case, at the suggestion of the court and with agreement from counsel, an accessory after the fact charge was added. The jury subsequently found Robertson guilty of accessory after the fact to murder, but acquitted him of the remaining charges.

         At trial, the following colloquy occurred between Robertson and his counsel during direct examination:

[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Now did you ever get into any trouble as a juvenile?
[ROBERTSON]: No.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Ever just stopped for some minor issue?
[THE STATE]: Again Your Honor, I'm going to object to the leading nature of his questions.
THE COURT: Okay, I'm going to overrule that one. Go ahead.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Thank you. Any kind of trouble when you were a juvenile?
[ROBERTSON]: No.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: How about as an adult, when you turned 18?
[ROBERTSON]: No.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Ever even arrested for anything?
[ROBERTSON]: Never been arrested. This is my first time being ...

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