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Court of Appeals upholds conviction of UMD student’s killer

Police did not violate right to remain silent, divided court says

By the slimmest of majorities, Maryland’s top court Friday upheld the first-degree murder conviction of a man who shot to death a University of Maryland student in 2011.

In its 4-3 decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that police officers were not constitutionally bound to stop questioning DeAndre Ricardo Williams when he told them, “I don’t want to say nothing. I don’t know.” The continued questioning yielded incriminating statements from Williams, who was being questioned regarding 22-year-old Justin DeSha-Overcash’s death.

The high court held that Williams initial comment — “I don’t want to say nothing” — could be regarded as invoking his right to remain silent. But in saying, “I don’t know,” Williams rendered his earlier statement ambiguous, relieving the officers of any constitutional obligation to stop their questioning.

“The ‘I don’t know’ statement could have been him weighing his options about wanting to talk or not knowing whether to speak,” Judge Lynne A. Battaglia wrote for the majority.

“Williams may have been unsure about whether to proceed with the interview and curious about why he was being interviewed,” she added. “As a result, we determine that the addition ‘I don’t know’ to the preceding sentence of ‘I don’t want to say nothing’ created ambiguity as to whether Williams wanted to invoke his right to remain silent.”

In dissent, Judge Robert N. McDonald said the police should have halted their questioning, as Williams made clear that he didn’t “want to say nothing.” Williams’ subsequent “I don’t know” did not refer to his refusal to speak but was merely a repetition of “the same protestation of ignorance” he had said to the officers about why he was being questioned, McDonald added.

“Thus, because Mr. Williams’ statements would have communicated (and did communicate) to reasonable officers that he chose to say nothing, Mr. Williams effectively invoked his constitutional right to remain silent,” McDonald wrote. “The officers should have respected his rights and ended the interview at that time.”

Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe, whose office represents Williams, said in an email message that he and his staff are “in the process of reviewing the decision and determining whether to seek further review,” perhaps by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Maryland attorney general’s office praised the court’s decision.

“A defendant’s right to remain silent is a core principle of our legal system, but the court agreed that it must be invoked in a clear and unequivocal manner,” Alan Brody, a spokesman for the office, stated in an email message. “This decision provides broader protection for law enforcement who are charged with knowing when a suspect has invoked his Miranda rights and stopping an interrogation at that time.”

Karen DeSha-Overcash, the victim’s mother, voiced gratitude for the court’s decision.

“This has been the longest road of my life,” she said of the years since Justin’s death.

“This is going to be my fifth Christmas without my son,” she added. “Justin: He truly was a gift.”

Justin DeSha-Overcash, a senior majoring in physics and astronomy, was at his home near the College Park campus on Jan. 11, 2011, when Williams – wearing a ski mask and carrying a handgun – entered with plans to rob him, according to the intermediate Court of Special Appeals’ opinion in the case. DeSha-Overcash defended himself by throwing a glass jar at Williams, who responded by fatally shooting him multiple times in the abdomen.

Williams fled by car with his waiting accomplice, Stephan Weaver. The two were later caught and arrested after the getaway vehicle was photographed by a speed camera.

Weaver later confessed to conspiring with Williams to rob DeSha-Overcash, according to the opinion.

On March 30, 2011, Williams was brought in to the Washington, D.C., homicide unit, where two Prince George’s County officers conducted the controversial interrogation.

A Prince George’ County Circuit Court judge rejected Williams’ pretrial motion to suppress his incriminating statements to the officers as having been given in violation of his right to remain silent. Williams subsequently pleaded not guilty on an agreed upon statement of facts with the prosecution.

Williams, who retained the right to appeal, was convicted in the circuit court of first-degree murder and use of a handgun in a violent crime. He was sentenced to life in prison with all but 49 years suspended for the murder and to a concurrent 20-year term for the handgun offense.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the interrogation and the conviction in a reported opinion in October 2014. Williams then sought review by the Court of Appeals.

Battaglia was joined in the majority opinion by Judges Clayton Greene Jr., Shirley M. Watts and Glenn T. Harrell Jr., a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

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

In its late student’s memory, the University of Maryland’s College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences offers the Justin DeSha-Overcash Summer Research Award, which provides a stipend to financially needy undergraduate astronomy, physics or geology students who demonstrate service to the community.

The high court rendered its decision in DeAndre Ricardo Williams v. State of Maryland, No. 9, September Term 2015.