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Court of Appeals orders retrial in 2004 drug case

If its unanimous decision Wednesday is any indication, Maryland’s top court had little doubt that Ramon Lopez deserves a new trial because the judge at his trial unconstitutionally allowed him to waive his right to counsel and defend himself on felony drug charges.

Why, then, did it take the Court of Appeals more than 2-1/2 years to hand down its decision after hearing Lopez’s appeal, during which time he has been in prison for the invalid conviction, according to his defense counsel?

Maryland State Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe, whose office represented Lopez, declined to speculate on why it took the court so long but found the wait disheartening.

“Justice delayed is always justice denied,” he said. “We are happy for the result. We are sorry that it took so long for justice.”

The error that doomed Lopez’s conviction actually occurred in 2004, when Judge John W. Sause Jr. allowed Lopez to dismiss his attorney during the jury trial in Caroline County Circuit Court.

The Court of Appeals found that Lopez’s dismissal of counsel was not made knowingly, because another judge had earlier misinformed Lopez of the severity of his potential punishment if convicted.

The Court of Special Appeals affirmed Lopez’s conviction. The Court of Appeals agreed to take the case in June 2008, and heard arguments on Oct. 6, 2008.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell declined, through spokeswoman Angelita Plemmer, to comment on the time it took for the decision to be rendered.

Retired Judge John C. Eldridge, who sat by special assignment and wrote the opinion, did not return telephone messages seeking comment. Even before his retirement, he was known more for the thoroughness of his opinions than for a speedy turnaround time.

Appellate attorneys who often argue before the Court of Appeals called the length of the delay in this case unusual but not unprecedented.

“It’s not a norm but it happens,” said Andrew D. Levy. “Even one case that takes the court more than two years to issue an opinion is one [case] too many.”

Levy called the wait in Lopez’s case “particularly egregious” because it delayed a convict’s right to a new trial, which could result in acquittal.

“That is all the more reason why the court has a responsibility to issue its opinions in a timely way,” said Levy, a partner at Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore.

Without naming anyone in particular, Levy said that “it is known that some judges are slower than others” in finishing their opinions. But the tardiness of individual judges does not excuse the Court of Appeals of its duty to issue opinions expeditiously, he added.

“These are ‘opinions of the court,’” Levy said. “It is the responsibility of the court to ensure they are issued in a timely fashion.”

Baltimore appellate lawyer Andrew H. Baida, of Rosenberg | Martin | Greenberg LLP, agreed.

“Fortunately, this kind of delay does not happen often,” said Baida. “It would be more fortunate if it happened even less.”

Assistant Public Defender Piedad Gomez, who successfully argued Lopez’s case in the high court, declined to address her long wait for the decision.

“I’m just happy with the outcome,” Gomez said. “I’m very happy.”

Her client was convicted by a jury of possessing marijuana and importing between 5 and 45 kilograms of it.

During trial in November 2004, Lopez was allowed to fire his attorney after a disagreement arose about whether to cross-examine a prosecution witness. Judge Sause did not mention anything about the maximum sentence Lopez faced.

At a bail hearing in April 2004, a District Court judge had told Lopez he faced 10 years on the importation charge and five for possession. However, as a repeat offender, Lopez actually faced 20 years and 10 years on those charges.

“It is clear … that under the Sixth Amendment and Article 21 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, a waiver of counsel in a criminal case requires that the accused be informed of the range of allowable punishments for the charges against him or her, including applicable enhanced penalties,” Eldridge wrote.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Ramon Lopez v. Maryland, CA No. 24, Sept. Term 2008. Reported. Opinion by Eldridge, J. (retired, specially assigned). Filed May 25, 2011.

Issue:

Did a judge err in permitting defendant to waive his right to counsel after being misinformed about the severity of his punishment if convicted.

Holding:

Yes; the waiver of counsel was not knowing and voluntary due to the misinformation about his potential punishment.

Counsel:

Piedad Gomez for petitioner; Cathleen C. Brockmeyer for respondent.

RecordFax # 11-0525-20