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Man convicted of murdering 15-year-old to get new trial

A man convicted of murdering a 15-year-old Woodlawn girl outside a Baltimore middle school in 2004 is entitled to a new trial, Maryland’s top court ruled Tuesday.

The Court of Appeals unanimously overturned Ogden Coleman II’s first-degree murder conviction and life sentence, saying he received ineffective assistance from his trial attorney, who failed to object at trial to the prosecution’s repeated references to Coleman’s silence during police questioning.

The lawyer’s failure to object to the approximately 30 unchallenged references to Coleman’s constitutionally protected right to remain silent impermissibly left jurors with the impression he had something to hide regarding the 2004 killing of Quatrina Johnson at Benjamin Franklin Middle School, the court said in its 7-0 decision. That impression led to his conviction.

“[C]ounsel’s representation in the present case, in failing to object to the references to Coleman’s silence, was deficient because it fell below the range of competence demanded of attorneys in criminal cases and was not pursued in furtherance of sound trial strategy,” wrote Judge Clayton Greene Jr., who noted police had told Coleman of his right to remain silent under the Supreme Court’s 1966 Miranda v. Arizona decision.

“Counsel’s error in not objecting to the references to Coleman’s post-Miranda silence negatively affected Coleman’s credibility because it gave the jury the opportunity to question why he may have been silent in those instances,” Greene added.

Deputy Baltimore County State’s Attorney John Cox said Tuesday that the office will again be ready to prosecute Coleman.

“We will do everything we can to retry the case,” he said. “We have no doubt as to his guilt and responsibility for the murder.”

Prosecutors said Coleman and two other men, Eric Watkins and Michael Shelton, had been enlisted by Jason Richards to kill Johnson’s foster sister, Shaday McKinnon, then 13.

Richards, then 24, had been charged with raping McKinnon at the girl’s home, according to testimony at Coleman’s 2005 trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

The murder was to be carried out on July 20, 2004, but went awry, according to the prosecution.

Instead of McKinnon, Johnson was hit on the head with a board and choked. Her body was placed in a car and driven to Gwynnvale Park in Pikesville, where Coleman and Shelton poured gasoline on the body and set it ablaze, the prosecution argued.

Coleman was arrested nine days later, advised of his right to remain silent and questioned by Baltimore County police detective Gary Childs.

Childs testified at trial to about 30 instances when Coleman remained silent under questioning, including one instance in which he was “very silent” when asked if he was involved in Johnson’s death.

Coleman’s trial attorney, Marshall T. Henslee, never objected.

The jury convicted Coleman of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. He was sentenced on Oct. 7, 2005, to consecutive terms of life in prison without parole for murder and life in prison for the conspiracy.

The intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction last year, saying Henslee’s failure to object did not affect the verdict.

But the high court disagreed, saying Henslee’s assistance was ineffective because his failure to object was not part of a valid trial strategy and led to Coleman’s conviction.

The court also found unconvincing the three reasons Henslee gave in post-conviction proceedings for not objecting: He was unaware he could object to the references to Coleman’s silence; Coleman’s silence helped the defense strategy of casting him as an accessory after the fact; and Henslee generally does not object at jury trials as jurors interpret frequent objections as the defense trying to cover something up.

“We do not see how trial counsel’s failure to object because of his ignorance of the law could possibly be seen as sound trial strategy or a strategic choice,” Greene wrote. “Defense counsel’s explanation as to why he did not object does not indicate that he made a rational and informed decision on a strategy and tactic after adequate investigation and preparation.”

Henslee said Tuesday he is not offended by the court’s characterization of his defense.

“If the Court of Appeals feels that there were mistakes made, then that’s what they’re there for, to find out things like that,” said Henslee, of Henslee & Gordon LLC in Towson. “I’m never upset when there are good results for my clients.”

Coleman’s appellate counsel, Michael P. Lytle, called it “abundantly clear” that Coleman’s frequently noted silence soured him with the jury. Coleman’s trial attorney should have recognized that and objected, Lytle said.

“Any time anyone mentions the defendant’s silence, your radar pings” as a defense lawyer, said Lytle, a Pasadena solo practitioner.

The Office of the Maryland Attorney General, which had urged the high court to uphold Coleman’s conviction, is “reviewing the decision,” said spokesman Alan Brody.

Richards was convicted of first-degree murder, conspiracy and rape and is serving a sentence of life without parole. Shelton pleaded guilty to conspiracy in a plea deal and received a 10-year sentence. Watkins pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 100 years in prison. He died in 2010 at age 23 at the hands of his cellmate, Mario Lawrence Bowling, 44.

What the court held

Case:

Ogden Coleman II v. State of Maryland, CA No. 90, Sept. Term 2012. Reported. Opinion by Greene, J. Argued June 10, 2013. Filed Sept. 24, 2013.

Issue:

Did trial counsel provide ineffective assistance by failing to object to the state’s frequent references at trial to the defendant’s silence during police questioning?

Holding:

Yes; the unobjected-to references harmed the defendant’s credibility “because it gave the jury the opportunity to question why he may have been silent in those instances.”

Counsel:

Michael P. Lytle for petitioner; Cathleen C. Brockmeyer for respondent.

RecordFax # 13-0924-20 (29 pages).