Maryland Court of Appeals Clarifies Standard For Granting a Petition of Actual Innocence and Awards New Trials

This week, in proceedings filed under the writ of actual innocence statute, CP §8-301, the Court of Appeals granted new trials to David Faulkner and Jonathan Smith, two men who have been in prison for nearly twenty years, since they were convicted of a burglary-related murder in 2000. Smith and Faulkner based their actual innocence petitions on newly discovered evidence (which was not available to them at trial), including:

  • A deal made with one of the key witnesses, where the State agreed to dismiss pending charges against the witness’s grandson if she testified about seeing Faulkner, Smith, and the third codefendant, near the crime scene on the day of the burglary-murder.
  • A palm print match to an alternative perpetrator (who had committed a string of similar crimes) in the exact location in the victim’s home where police determined the perpetrator had entered.

The Court of Appeals explained that the circuit court committed a “fundamental error” using the incorrect standard to determine whether the writ should be granted, erroneously mentioning – at least once – that Smith and Faulkner did not prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that an alternative perpetrator committed the crime. The Court of Appeals clarified that the burden on a petitioner asserting his innocence under CP §8-301 is much lower than the reasonable doubt standard. In order to obtain relief, petitioners only need to show a “substantial or significant possibility of a different result.” The Court of Appeals elaborated that “the [circuit] court did not account for the possibility that Smith and Faulkner could prevail in their innocence petitions even if the State in a hypothetical trial – or Smith and Faulkner, in their defense cases – would not be able to prove [the alternative perpetrators] guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Court of Appeals also found that the circuit court erred in concluding that there was not a substantial or significant possibility of a different result if the alternative perpetrator evidence had been known at the time of trial. The Court underscored the importance of the fact that the palm print of a different individual, who had committed similar crimes in the neighborhood around the same time, was found in the victim’s home, in the precise place where the police determined the burglar had entered. Also critical to the Court of Appeals’ analysis was the fact that this palm print evidence was not the only newly discovered evidence. The Court held that all newly discovered evidence must be examined cumulatively in determining whether the “substantial or significant possibility of a different result” standard is met. Disclosure prior to the trial of the other key piece of newly discovered evidence – tape recordings of conversations between a key witness and the detective, demonstrating the witness’s willingness to alter her testimony based on whether the State would dismiss the drug charges against her grandson – likely would have markedly increased the effectiveness of defense counsel’s impeachment of her testimony.

This clarification by the Court of Appeals of the appropriate standard required to satisfy the writ of actual innocence statute, and the Court’s articulation of the way that standard must be applied by circuit courts, will be critical to ensuring that Maryland’s statutory scheme functions properly to correct wrongful convictions.

Whether you wish to appeal a mistake at the trial court level in Maryland or federal courts or need assistance challenging an appeal, the Baltimore appellate lawyers at Nathans & Biddle LLP are prepared to help

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