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CSA reverses, remands murder conviction

A man convicted of murdering an acquaintance who “disrespected” him is entitled to a new trial, the Court of Special Appeals held Friday.The trial judge erred during jury selection by allowing a group of prospective jurors to determine their own ability to be impartial, the appellate court held in an unreported opinion.Friday’s decision quotes heavily from the Court of Appeals’ opinion last year in Dingle v. State, which “essentially dealt with the exact issue we now have before us,” Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr. wrote.The remand is a win for Charles Wesley Brooks, who was represented on appeal by Julia Doyle Bernhardt of the state public defender’s office.Brooks was convicted of the first-degree murder of Jerome Woodard, a Washington resident who was found dead in a Prince George’s County apartment parking lot in August 1999.At trial, the evidence against him consisted of testimony by two alleged accomplices. James Fendall testified that Brooks killed Woodard because Woodard had “disrespected” him, Bernhardt said Friday. Fendall was identified as an accomplice but was never charged, she added. Michael Lewis, who was under indictment for the same murder, also testified against Brooks.Brooks was convicted of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and use of a handgun in commission of a felony. He was sentenced to life in prison plus two consecutive sentences of 20 years each. He appealed the conviction on several grounds.“I had hoped the court would reverse based on sufficiency of evidence, since Maryland law requires corroboration of accomplice testimony,” Bernhardt said.However, the court remanded the case for a new trial based on improper questioning of prospective jurors.In questioning the prospective jurors, or venire, the trial judge had asked them to stand if they had any association with law enforcement, then asked them to remain standing if they thought they could not be fair and impartial.The defense attorney did not object immediately, but “certainly raised his objection to the question on several occasions thereafter while the voir dire process was still ongoing,” Thieme noted.This was sufficient to preserve the issue for appellate review, the court held. Turning to the merits, the court found itself bound by Dingle, in which Chief Judge Robert M. Bell wrote “the impaneling of a fair and impartial jury is the task of the trial judge.” As in Dingle, “’the procedure followed in this case shifts from the trial judge to the venire responsibility to decide juror bias,’” Friday’s opinion states.<table width=”100%” border=”0″ cellspacing=”0″ cellpadding=”0″

WHAT THE COURT HELD

[IMGCAP(1)]Case: Charles Wesley Brooks v. State, CSA No. 1050, Sept. Term 2000. Unreported. Opinion by Thieme, J., ret’d, spec. assigned. Filed Mar. 9, 2001.Issue: Did the trial judge err in asking potential jurors who were associated with law enforcement to stand, and to remain standing if they thought they could not be fair and impartial jurors? Holding: Yes. Under the Court of Appeals decision last year in Dinkle v. State, it is the trial judge’s responsibility to ensure a fair and impartial jury. The question shifted that responsibility to the potential jurors.Counsel: Julia Doyle Bernhardt for appellant; Deborah Russell for the state.RecordFax: #1-0309-02 (11 pages)