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Verdict overturned in Christmas Day killing

New trial ordered for man convicted of 2007 patricide

Maryland’s top court has overturned the first-degree murder conviction and life sentence of a mentally ill man alleged to have stabbed his father to death in a Gaithersburg park on Christmas Day 2007.

The Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for David C. Winters, saying he did not “knowingly” waive his right to a jury trial because he had received incorrect information from the judge.

Specifically, Montgomery County Circuit Judge William J. Rowan III told Winters that, in order for a post-conviction insanity defense to succeed, Winters would have to convince all 12 jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not criminally responsible for the slaying.

In fact, the defense would be judged under the far less onerous preponderance of the evidence standard, Judge Clayton Greene Jr. wrote for the majority in the 4-3 opinion.

“Thus, it is reasonable that an instruction to Winters that a jury trial would require him to convince all 12 jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not criminally responsible would make a jury trial less attractive than it actually is pursuant to Maryland law,” Greene wrote.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said Thursday that his office will be ready to retry Winters.

“The facts and the merits of the case remain effectively the same,” he added. “We remain confident in the fact and evidence in the case.”

McCarthy said the high court’s decision points to “the mutual responsibility of the court and the prosecution to make sure defendants are properly advised all the time.”

Michael R. Braudes, Winters’ appellate attorney, said the ruling should remind judges of their obligation to ensure that the defendant has made “a free, knowing and voluntary choice to select a jury or waive a jury.”

“The judge, in every case, has to be scrupulously accurate and scrupulously careful,” added Braudes, a supervising appellate attorney at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. “When the defendant is seriously disturbed, the judge has to be even more careful to make sure that he understands what his options are.”

But the Office of the Maryland Attorney General, which had urged the high court to uphold the conviction, said Rowan’s erroneous statement had no bearing on Winters’ decision to forgo a jury trial.

“Obviously, the judge was trying to do his best to inform the defendant of his rights but inadvertently misspoke,” said Alan Brody, a spokesman for the office. “We do not believe this error had any influence on the defendant’s decision to elect a court trial. The defendant’s murder conviction was the result of a fair trial and we believe his conviction should have been upheld.”

After Winters waived his right to a jury in January 2009, Rowan proceeded with the trial and found the 19-year-old guilty of first-degree murder in the slaying of his father, Andrew Winters, near Muddy Branch Park.

The judge rejected Winters’ claim that he was not criminally responsible, finding by a preponderance of the evidence that he understood the criminality of his conduct despite suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction in July 2012, saying a trial judge need not inform a defendant of the standard of proof for a not criminally responsible defense.

The Court of Appeals, in overturning the conviction, agreed that judges are not obliged to address the burden of proof; however, if they do address it, they must do so accurately, Greene wrote.

The court also discounted the fact Winters was represented by counsel, saying judges have a duty to ensure that all defendants are correctly informed about their constitutional right to a jury trial.

Dissent: no effect

In dissent, Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. said Rowan’s erroneous statement of the defendant’s burden in proving no criminal responsibility had no effect on Wilson’s decision to waive a jury trial.

“The record does not disclose that Winters was told anything that would distinguish or suggest that the burden of proof in establishing an NCR defense was different between a jury or bench trial,” Harrell wrote.

“Thus, for all Winters knew at the time of his jury trial waiver colloquy, apparently, ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ was the prevailing standard for both modalities of trial,” Harrell added. “There being no basis before him to distinguish between the modalities in making a choice on the ground of burden of proof, how the majority opinion can maintain that Winters was misled (or likely misled) into believing that a jury trial was less attractive than a bench trial eludes me.”

Greene was joined in the majority opinion by retired Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and judges Lynne A. Battaglia and Robert N. McDonald.

In a concurring opinion, McDonald countered Harrell’s view that Rowan’s error was harmless.

Rowan “may have given Mr. Winters the same misinformation concerning the burden of proof he would face in a bench trial, but that did not negate the misinformation concerning a jury trial,” McDonald wrote. “Few would view the prospect of persuading 12 people under that formidable [beyond-a-reasonable-doubt] standard as attractive as persuading one.”

Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Judge Sally D. Adkins joined Harrell’s dissent.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

David C. Winters v. State of Maryland, CA No. 85, Sept. Term 2012. Reported. Opinion by Greene, J. Concurrence by McDonald, J. Dissent by Harrell, J. Argued June 6, 2013. Filed Sept. 25, 2013.

Issue:

Was the defendant’s jury-trial waiver valid after the judge erroneously told him the burden of proof for not criminally responsible is proof beyond a reasonable doubt?

Holding:

No; the judge’s erroneous instruction made a jury trial “appear less attractive” than a bench trial.

Counsel:

Michael R. Braudes for petitioner; Brenda Gruss for respondent.

RecordFax # 13-0925-20 (34 pages).