The standard that Maryland jurors use in deciding whether to impose the death penalty is constitutional, the Court of Appeals held Tuesday.
The decision comes three years and four months after the top court heard the challenge by Jody Lee Miles, who was sentenced to death in 1998 for the murder and robbery of an Eastern Shore musical theater director.
The reported opinion was one of three issued Tuesday. In the others, the court affirmed Anthony Jerome Miller’s double-murder convictions in the so-called Redwood Trust homicides as well as Ronald Cox’s first-degree murder conviction for a killing at the Church Square Shopping Center in Baltimore in December 2007.
In Miles’ case, the death-row inmate claimed two decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, Cunningham v. California and Ring v. Arizona, invalidated the standard used by Maryland jurors.
By a vote of 4-3, the Court of Appeals said Cunningham and Ring did not apply to the jury’s analysis, and declined to substitute its judgment for the General Assembly’s.
“The majority of this Court remains persuaded that Maryland’s capital sentencing procedure does not violate the Sixth Amendment,” Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. wrote for the majority. “If our conclusion is incorrect, it can be corrected” by the Supreme Court.
Under the state’s sentencing law, the jury can vote for death when circumstances favoring execution, known as aggravating factors, outweigh mitigating factors by a preponderance of the evidence. This standard is also known as the “more likely than not” basis.
Miles argued the standard should be “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The dissenters agreed.
“I cannot fathom authorizing the imposition of the death penalty based on a determination that death is ‘more likely than not’ the appropriate sentence,” retired Judge Irma S. Raker, wrote for herself, Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and Judge Clayton Greene Jr.
Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said she is “obviously disappointed” by the majority’s decision.
“We like to say we have the narrowest death penalty [statute] in the country,” she said. “This is one way we don’t.”
State Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, who opposes the death penalty, called Maryland’s “more likely than not” standard “a problematic feature of the law.”
A tougher standard “has definitely been part of the conversation in Annapolis,” said Raskin, D-Montgomery.
“I’ve always assumed that the criminal standard [of beyond a reasonable doubt] was to apply … to every phase of the trial,” he added. “It would be logical for legislators to read the decision and examine that issue.”
Miles did not deny that he killed Edward J. Atkinson in Wicomico County on April 2, 1997, but said it was self-defense.
A jury in neighboring Queen Anne’s County concluded that the aggravating factor (robbing Atkinson after killing him) outweighed the mitigating factor (Miles’ lack of a criminal record).
Biddle, Miles’ attorney, did not answer a telephone message seeking comment before press time.
The other cases decided Tuesday were:
-Miller v. State, affirming Miller’s second-degree murder convictions for killing Jason Convertino, the general manager of what was then the Redwood Trust nightclub, and Sean Wisniewski, a DJ at the Baltimore club. The victims were found shot to death in Convertino’s apartment in 2003. Miller was charged in January 2006. At his trial, a handwriting expert testified for the state that the “general appearance” of Convertino’s signature on a key piece of evidence did not match Convertino’s handwriting but had “characteristics” in common with Miller’s. The Court of Appeals heard argument on March 4, 2010. Murphy wrote the opinion, which is available as RecordFax #11-0920-21.
-Cox v. State, in which Cox challenged the admissibility of statements he and a codefendant, Rodney Johnson, made to a fellow detainee at Central Booking about the killing of Todd Dargan on Dec. 28, 2007. The court rejected Cox’s Confrontation Clause challenge because the statements were nontestimonial in nature.
The case was argued May 10. The unanimous opinion was written by Judge Clayton Greene Jr. It is available as RecordFax #11-0920-22 (32 pages).
WHAT THE COURT HELD
Miles v. Maryland, CA No. 120 Sept. Term 2007. Reported. Opinion by Murphy, J. Dissent by Raker, J., retired, spec. assigned. Argued May 5, 2008. Filed Sept. 7, 2011.
Is Maryland’s jury sentencing standard of “more likely than not” in capital cases constitutional?
Yes; the standard does not violate the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.
Robert W. Biddle for Petitioner; James E. Williams for respondent