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Griffin v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

August 29, 2019


          Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case Nos. 18120316; 18120317

          Wright, Beachley, Wilner, Alan M. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.


          BEACHLEY, J.

         On October 25, 2016, appellant Wendell Griffin filed a Petition for Writ of Error Coram Nobis and Request for Hearing in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, seeking to vacate his 1982 convictions for first-degree murder and openly carrying a deadly weapon. The circuit court held a hearing on appellant's petition on November 15, 2017. In an opinion and order dated April 3, 2018, the circuit court denied appellant's petition. Appellant timely appealed, and presents two issues for our review, [1] which we have rephrased as follows:

1. Does the inability to file a civil claim in federal court constitute a significant collateral consequence for purposes of coram nobis relief?
2. Did appellant waive his right to seek coram nobis relief?

         We hold that appellant's inability to file a civil rights claim does not satisfy the "significant collateral consequences" element required for coram nobis relief. In the alternative, we hold that appellant waived the grounds underlying his coram nobis petition. Accordingly, we affirm.


         On March 8, 1982, a jury convicted appellant of the first-degree murder of James Wise, III, and of openly carrying a deadly weapon with intent to injure. Appellant received a life sentence for first-degree murder, and a consecutive sentence of three years for the weapon conviction. A panel of this Court affirmed appellant's convictions in an unreported opinion, and the Court of Appeals denied appellant's petition for certiorari. Several years later, in the 1990s, appellant unsuccessfully sought both Maryland state post-conviction relief in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City and federal habeas corpus relief in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland.[2]

         On June 10, 2010, appellant filed a pro se petition seeking post-conviction DNA testing pursuant to Md. Code (2001, 2008 Repl. Vol.), § 8-201 of the Criminal Procedure Article ("CP").[3] Pursuant to that filing, appellant, through counsel, requested documents from the Baltimore Police Department ("BPD") regarding its investigation of appellant for the murder of Mr. Wise. As a result of that document request, in 2011 appellant learned that the BPD had withheld exculpatory evidence consisting of photo arrays, witness statements, and chain of custody documents. On February 2, 2012, appellant filed a motion for leave to reopen his post-conviction case, seeking post-conviction relief based on the newly discovered evidence. Four days later, he filed a petition for writ of actual innocence pursuant to CP § 8-301.[4] Both petitions alleged that the State had committed numerous Brady[5] violations.

         The parties appeared in the circuit court before Judge Gale E. Rasin on May 23, 2012, for a hearing on the two petitions. Prior to the court ruling on the merits of the Brady violations, however, the parties reached an agreement whereby appellant would withdraw his claims in consideration for a time-served sentence. The State told the court,

[T]he State is not convinced that there were, in fact, any Brady violations. And if the State were convinced the State ethically would be bound to concede to the granting of a new trial. The State does recognize that the Brady allegations are plausible enough that . . . after discussing the matters with both [appellant] through his attorney, the State and [appellant] have agreed to a -- the State will concede to a resentencing on this matter.

         The State went on to explain that the matter had "been discussed" with "all levels of the State's Attorney's Office," and that this particular course of action would "ensure that [appellant] for the rest of his life will remain convicted for the murder of James Wise." (Emphasis added). Appellant's counsel responded that appellant "maintain[ed] his actual innocence of these convictions but [had] agreed to this resolution in the interest of moving forward and obtaining his freedom." (Emphasis added). As we shall explain below, these expressed considerations-the State's intent that appellant remain convicted of James Wise's murder for the rest of his life, and appellant's decision to accept a commuted sentence rather than challenge the underlying convictions for Brady violations-play an important role in resolving this appeal.

         On November 13, 2013, nearly eighteen months after he was released from prison, appellant filed a civil action in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988(b) against the BPD and three BPD detectives.[6] The district court dismissed appellant's complaint, ruling that it was barred pursuant to Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). In Heck, the Supreme Court held that,

in order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254. A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable under § 1983.

Id. at 486-87 (footnote omitted). As relevant here, Heck required appellant to have his convictions "declared invalid by a [Maryland] state tribunal" before proceeding with his § 1983 action.

         Appellant appealed the district court's decision to the Fourth Circuit. In Griffin v. Balt. Police Dept., 804 F.3d 692, 699 (4th Cir. 2015), the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of appellant's claim. The Fourth Circuit noted that Maryland provides "many avenues of post-conviction relief[, ]" listing as examples petitions for writ of error coram nobis and for writ of actual innocence, procedures which are in addition to direct appeals and collateral review. Id. at 698. Nevertheless, the Fourth Circuit cautioned that "[appellant] may or may not qualify for any or all of [those] remedies; that is for Maryland to decide." Id.

         Apparently heeding the Fourth Circuit's suggestion, on October 25, 2016, appellant filed his petition for writ of error coram nobis, which is the subject of this current appeal. In the petition, appellant sought to vacate his convictions based on the same Brady violations he alleged in his 2012 petitions for post-conviction relief and for writ of actual innocence. As previously noted, the circuit court held a hearing on November 15, 2017. In its memorandum opinion, the circuit court denied appellant's petition, finding that he failed to establish that he was suffering significant collateral consequences, and that pursuant to the doctrine of res judicata, he waived his right to seek coram nobis relief. As stated above, appellant timely appealed. We shall provide additional facts as necessary.


         The Court of Appeals has noted that "[t]he essential nature of the writ of coram nobis is that it is an 'extraordinary remedy' justified 'only under circumstances compelling such action to achieve justice.'" Hyman v. State, 463 Md. 656, 671 (2019) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting State v. Smith, 443 Md. 572, 597 (2015)). Explaining its purpose, the Court has stated that the writ of coram nobis

is "available to raise fundamental errors in attempting to show that a criminal conviction was invalid under circumstances where no other remedy is presently available and where there were sound reasons for the failure to seek relief earlier." Often, coram nobis relief is sought "years after the fact":
Very often in a criminal case, because of a relatively light sanction imposed or for some other reason, a defendant is willing to forego [sic] an appeal even if errors of a constitutional or fundamental nature may have occurred. Then, when the defendant later learns of a substantial collateral consequence of the conviction, it may be too late to appeal, and, if the defendant is not incarcerated or on parole or probation, he or she will not be able to challenge the conviction by a petition for a writ of habeas corpus or a petition under the Post Conviction Procedure Act.

Id. (citation omitted) (quoting Smith, 443 Md. at 598).

         Although the Court of Appeals has described the writ of error coram nobis as "an ancient common law device," Smith, 443 Md. at 623, no Maryland court had articulated the standard of appellate review until State v. Rich, 454 Md. 448 (2017). There, for the first time, the Court of Appeals held,

Because of the "extraordinary" nature of this remedy, [the Court of Appeals] deem[s] it appropriate for appellate courts to review the coram nobis court's decision to grant or deny the petition for abuse of discretion. However, in determining whether the ultimate disposition of the coram nobis court constitutes an abuse of discretion, appellate courts should not disturb the coram nobis court's factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous, while legal determinations shall be reviewed de novo.

Id. at 470-71.

         Turning to the substantive requirements of the writ, a petitioner must satisfy five conditions before a court may grant relief:

[1] "the grounds for challenging the criminal conviction must be of a constitutional, jurisdictional, or fundamental character"; [2] the petitioner has the burden to overcome the "presumption of regularity" in the criminal case; [3] "the coram nobis petitioner must be suffering or facing significant collateral consequences from the conviction"; [4] the issue must not be waived; and [5] there may ...

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