Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Md. court overturns rape conviction, cites decades-old speedy-trial violation

Steve Lash//June 21, 2017

Md. court overturns rape conviction, cites decades-old speedy-trial violation

By Steve Lash

//June 21, 2017

Maryland’s second-highest court Tuesday overturned a man’s recent conviction on charges of having raped two teenagers 35 years ago, citing more recently discovered evidence that prosecutors in 1983 acknowledged their failure to bring him to trial within 180 days of his initial counsel-represented court appearance in 1982.

Based on that evidence, the Court of Special Appeals said John Hill cannot be retried for the alleged Jan. 2, 1982, attack.

In its unreported 3-0 decision, the court applied the state’s Hicks rule, which requires that defendants be brought to trial within 180 days of their or their attorneys’ first appearance in court unless the prosecution can show “good cause” for the delay.

The Maryland attorney general’s office said in a statement that it is reviewing the Court of Special Appeals’ decision.

Hill first appeared in Baltimore City Circuit Court, with counsel, on April 19, 1982, on the rape charges — but he was not brought to trial by the 180th day, Oct. 15, 1982. Rather, the prosecution waited until March 17, 1983, before notifying the circuit court in writing that it would not prosecute the case at that time due to a “Hicks problem.”

Then, in 2014, a search of open arrest warrants by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services turned up Hill’s name with regard to the alleged rapes. He was subsequently indicted on Sept. 30, 2014.

Hill, through counsel, argued in vain that the more than 30-year span between the alleged rapes and the indictment violated his constitutional rights to a speedy trial and due process.

The Baltimore City Circuit Court rejected those arguments and in September 2015 a jury found Hill guilty of two counts of rape, two counts of sexual offense, one count of assault to commit murder, two counts of assault and two counts of using a handgun in a violent act.

He was sentenced to life in prison on Jan. 5, 2016, with all but 25 years suspended.

Shortly after sentencing, the state found the records of the original court proceedings from the early 1980s, including the prosecution’s decades-old notice about its nolle prosequi due to the Hicks problem. The records also included Hill’s request at the time for a psychological evaluation, which was granted.

Based on these newly discovered documents, Hill asked for a new trial. But the circuit court rejected the request, saying Hill’s request for psychological testing amounted to a waiver of his right to a trial within 180 days, as Maryland’s top court has require ever since its 1979 decision in Hicks v. State.

But the Court of Special Appeals said Tuesday that the Hicks rule had been violated because a waiver of the right to a trial must be stated expressly by the defendant.

“Our precedents are clear that consent to waive Hicks must be affirmative and that mere silence is insufficient,” Judge Dan Friedman wrote for the court.

“A request for a psychological evaluation is not an affirmative consent for postponement, and the circuit court here erred in so finding,” he added. “The circuit court’s legal rulings on these issues – that Hill’s mere request for a psychological evaluation provided good cause and consent for the postponement — were incorrect, and necessarily constituted an abuse of discretion. Because no exception applied for the state to exceed the Hicks date of October 15, 1982, we reverse the ruling and instruct the circuit court to dismiss the charges against Hill with prejudice.”

The Court of Special Appeals added that the 30-year span between the alleged rapes and the indictment did not violate Hill’s constitutional rights to a speedy trial and due process.

Renee Hutchins, Hill’s lead attorney, said she is “delighted” with what she characterized as the court’s mixed decision.

“We are, of course, disappointed that the court did not find that the prosecution’s 30-year delay in the case amounted to a constitutional violation,” said Hutchins, a University of Maryland Frances King Carey School of Law professor who teaches the appellate and post-conviction advocacy clinic. “But we are very pleased that the court found the Hicks violation and that Mr. Hill’s convictions will be vacated with prejudice.”

Friedman was joined in the opinion by Chief Judge Patrick L. Woodward and Judge J. Frederick Sharer, a retired jurist who sat by special assignment. The court issued its decision in John Hill v. State of Maryland, No. 2740 September Term 2015 and No. 1573 September 2016.


Networking Calendar

Submit an entry for the business calendar