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Promises by police cause reversal of conviction for triple ax-murder

An Eastern Shore man sentenced to death for the ax murders of his fiancée and her grandparents will get a new trial after the Court of Appeals held yesterday that his confession was improperly induced by a police interrogation team and should have been suppressed at his trial.

Among other things, the police implied that they could protect Eugene E. Winder from “vigilantes” bent on revenge only if he confessed, according to yesterday’s opinion.

Winder “argues that his confession was the product of improper threats and promises made by the police and therefore involuntary…,” wrote Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. for the court.

“As we shall explain, we agree with [Winder’s] assessment under Maryland non-constitutional law and hold that the trial judge erred in denying Appellant’s suppression motion,” wrote Harrell, reversing and remanding the case for a new trial. Judge Dale R. Cathell concurred in the result only.

Winder was convicted and sentenced to death in Baltimore County Circuit Court on May 27, 1999, for the killings, which occurred on Feb. 19, 1998 in Fruitland. The case was transferred for trial from Wicomico County at Winder’s request. The case went to the top court for review on an automatic appeal in death penalty cases

“It’s a big win,” said Winder’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Nancy S. Forster. “I really do believe the flagrancy of the police misconduct made it easier for the court to reverse. Normally, we have an uphill battle getting confessions thrown out.

“As the Court of Appeals points out, the police conduct goes far beyond anything they’ve held in the past as improper inducement,” Forster added.

Kathryn G. Graeff, deputy chief of the criminal appeals division in the attorney general’s office, characterized the opinion as a lesson in what’s permissible.

“The court provided further guidance regarding the interrogation practices it will uphold,” Graeff said. Death before fire

Firefighters discovered the bodies of Geraldine Mainor, John Mainor and their granddaughter, Christine Lee Mainor, after extinguishing a fire in their Fruitland home.

An autopsy revealed they died before the fire started from blunt force from an ax or hatchet and knife to their heads, necks and upper bodies. The state fire marshal’s office determined that the fire had been intentionally set and started in the room where the bodies were found.

A son of Geraldine and John Mainor notified police after he saw Winder, who was engaged to Christine Mainor, at the fire scene the next morning with a bandage on his hand and a cut on his nose.

The following day, Winder, 26, complied with a request to come to a police station. The cut on his hand was photographed, he gave clippings of his fingernails to police and the police kept his car for testing after finding blood spots on its interior.

Three days later, the state police executed a search warrant of Winder’s home and he voluntarily went with officers to the Maryland State Police barrack in Salisbury. Winder was interrogated by “at least” four members of the state police participating in the questioning, the opinion said.

The promises included special consideration in the prosecution of the case “in order to provide him leniency,” the opinion noted. The police also offered Winder safety from “vigilantes” — friends of the victims who, according to the officers, wanted revenge.

Twelve hours after the questioning began, Winder confessed to the murders after identifying the victims from autopsy photos.

He pleaded not guilty but, against his lawyer’s advice, agreed to a statement of facts. He was convicted at a bench trial and sentenced to death by a jury.

Experts in defending death penalty cases praised yesterday’s reversal by the Court of Appeals.

“There’s always a powerful inducement to break a case,” said Fred Warren Bennett, a frequent death penalty litigator. “But you have to do it properly. When you start making inducements, the question arises whether the confession was voluntary.”

José Anderson, a criminal law professor at the University of Baltimore, said the integrity of a confession is “crucial” in the reliability of death-penalty cases.

“Inducements precede Miranda in overturning confessions,” Anderson noted. “So there’s nothing unusual in the law the court relied on.”

Christopher S. Flohr, a criminal defense attorney in Prince George’s County and a former public defender, called it “disturbing” that the police implied they might turn Winder over to an angry mob if he didn’t confess.

“The opinion offers a welcome reminder that there are limits, especially when the death penalty is involved,” Flohr said.Two-part test

In reversing the verdict, the top court applied a two-part test to determine the voluntariness of a custodial confession based on a 1979 Court of Appeals opinion, Hillard v. State.

A confession is involuntary and therefore inadmissible, the Hillard court said, if a police officer promises or implies that a suspect will be given special consideration from a prosecuting authority in exchange for a confession and the suspect makes a confession in reliance on the police officer’s statement.

“Beginning with the first prong of the test, we hold, without question, the police officers involved in the interrogation of [Winder] made several promises and offers of help to [Winder] attempting to elicit his confession,” Harrell wrote.

“[T]he interrogating officers’ statements and conduct go far beyond that in any of our prior cases where improper inducements were recognized,” Harrell wrote.

Nor did the state meet its burden to prove that Winder did not rely on the inducements, the opinion said. “We are not persuaded by the State’s effort to convince us that the officers’ statements were not the cause of [Winder’s] confession,” Harrell wrote.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

[IMGCAP(1)]Case: Eugene E. Winder v. State, CA No. 51, Sept. Term 1999. Reported. Opinion by Harrell, J. Filed Jan. 9, 2001. Issue: Did the trial judge err in denying Winder’s motion to suppress his custodial confession that he bludgeoned to death his fiancée and her grandparents≠ Holding: Yes; judgment reversed and remanded for a new trial. The denial of the motion to suppress the confession was improper because the state failed to establish that the confession was not made in reliance on improper promises made by a police interrogation team.Counsel: Assistant Public Defender Nancy S. Forster for appellant; Assistant Attorney General Annabelle L. Lisic for appellee. RecordFax: 1-0109-22 (57 pages)