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Court of Appeals’ decision reinstates murder conviction

Maryland’s top court Tuesday reinstated a Baltimore killer’s first-degree murder conviction and life sentence after concluding that judges validly rejected his request to change attorneys on the morning of trial.

The Court of Appeals’ decision in the case of a 2007 slaying reversed a lower court ruling that the judges had violated Tyres Kennard Taylor’s federal and state constitutional right to discharge his counsel and replace him with one of his choosing.

The judges, in rejecting the request, permissibly concluded that Taylor had not provided a “meritorious reason” for substituting counsel and that the Baltimore City Circuit Court’s crowded docket did not allow for the necessary continuance for new counsel, the court said.

“We have held consistently … that the right to counsel does not give an accused the unfettered right to discharge current counsel and demand different counsel shortly before or at trial,” Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. wrote for the high court. “A defendant may not manipulate the right so as to frustrate the orderly administration of criminal justice.”

The Court of Appeals added that the three judges who rejected Taylor’s request also complied with Maryland procedural Rule 4-215(e), which requires judges to ask defendants if they have a meritorious reason for wanting to retain other counsel.

“Taylor was given an opportunity to explain the reasons underlying his requests, and, after considering what Taylor had to say, the trial court found that his reasons did not merit a discharge of counsel and/or a postponement and denied his requests,” Harrell wrote. “Rule 4-215(e) and our case law construing that rule require no more of a trial court.”

Brian S. Kleinbord, of the Office of the Maryland Attorney General, said he welcomed the court’s decision.

“This is a complicated rule, and judges have to balance the right of the accused, his right to counsel, along with their obligation to see that the cases are tried in a timely manner and that justice is served,” said Kleinbord, who heads the office’s criminal appeals division. “Hopefully, this decision will bring some clarity to their balancing those objectives.”

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said the court’s decision makes clear that criminal defendants cannot game the legal system by seeking new counsel when their trials are about to start.

“It [the decision] sends, to me at least, a pretty clear message that a defendant does not get carte blanche, so to speak, a postponement simply because he or she would like to retain new counsel on the eve of trial,” Bernstein said. “The defendant’s motivation must be based on a desire to retain new counsel and not simply gain an advantage by getting a postponement.”

Assistant Maryland Public Defender Jeffrey M. Ross, Taylor’s appellate attorney, declined to comment on the court’s decision.

Taylor, whose first trial ended in a mistrial, was convicted in June 2010 of first-degree murder and related offenses for the May 17, 2007, killing of Robert Perlie, who was found lying face down with a gunshot wound to his head at 2 a.m. on Dallas Court in Baltimore.

On the morning of his June 9 retrial, Taylor asked Baltimore City Circuit Judge Sylvester Cox — who was hearing continuance requests that morning — to permit him to replace his public defender, Gil Amaral, with Leslie Stein, a private attorney retained by Taylor’s family. Stein had recently won Taylor an acquittal in a separate trial on unrelated charges.

Amaral told Cox he was “ready for trial” but he understood Taylor’s “comfort level” with Stein in light of the acquittal. Stein said he could represent Taylor but would require a one-week continuance.

Cox rejected Taylor’s request to change attorneys, citing Stein’s request for a continuance.

“This case [is] from three years ago,” Cox said, according to a transcript. “This is a retrial. Mr. Amaral indicates he’s prepared and ready to go to trial.”

On June 10, 2010, Judge David W. Young, who was to preside over the trial, agreed with Cox and told Taylor he could either proceed with Amaral or represent himself. Taylor chose to stay with Amaral, and Young — his patience exhausted, according to the high court’s opinion — withdrew from the case, which was transferred that day to Judge John N. Prevas.

Prevas, agreeing with Cox and Young, said the case would proceed with Amaral as counsel and without a continuance.

On June 16, a jury found Taylor guilty of first-degree murder, attempted robbery, first-degree assault, robbery with a dangerous weapon, conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon and use of a handgun during the commission of a violent crime.

Prevas, who died in October 2010, sentenced Taylor to life in prison plus 40 years.

Taylor appealed, arguing that the judges failed to comply with Rule 4-215(e).

The intermediate Court of Special Appeals agreed in an unreported May 10, 2012, opinion. The court said the judges addressed “the merits of Taylor’s request without considering the reasons,” in violation of the rule.

The state sought review by the Court of Appeals.

The high court held that Cox, Young and Prevas acted within their discretion in finding that Taylor’s “comfort level” with Stein — who would need a week to prepare — was not a “sufficiently meritorious” reason to replace Amaral, who was ready to mount a defense.

Harrell was joined in his opinion by judges Lynne A. Battaglia, Sally D. Adkins, Mary Ellen Barbera and Robert N. McDonald.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and Judge Clayton Greene Jr. did not join Harrell’s opinion but, in a concurring opinion by Bell, agreed with the court’s judgment that Taylor’s rights were met.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

State of Maryland v. Taylor, CSA No. 60, September Term 2012. Reported. Opinion by Harrell, J. Concurrence by Bell, C.J. Argued March 11, 2013. Decided May 21, 2013.

Issue:

Did the trial judges err in denying the defendant’s request to discharge his public defender and replace him with the attorney of his choice, who requested a one-week continuance?

Holding:

No; the judges’ denial of the request was within their judicial discretion and in compliance with the Constitution and Maryland Rule 4-215(e).

Counsel:

Michelle W. Cole for petitioner; Jeffrey M. Ross for respondent.

RecordFax #13-0521-21 (43 pages).