A man convicted in the 1987 murder of a woman in her Easton kitchen will get another chance to prove his innocence.
Maryland’s second-highest court said Wednesday that a trial judge must determine whether “newly discovered” evidence pointing to another potential killer and raising questions about the prosecution’s star witness establishes “a substantial or significant possibility” that the jury would have found Jonathan D. Smith not guilty.
In its reported 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals said the Talbot County Circuit Court wrongfully rejected Smith’s challenge to his conviction after erroneously concluding his trial attorney could have discovered the other suspect’s palm print and the witness’s compromising conversation with police before or during the 2001 trial. As a result, the circuit court never addressed the possibility that Smith might be innocent, the appellate court said in sending Smith’s case back for a hearing under Maryland’s Criminal Procedure law.
“It is important to note that the requirement that the (convict) show that evidence could not have been discovered at an earlier time does not require that defense counsel exhaust every lead or seek to discover a needle in a haystack,” Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff wrote in the court’s 71-page opinion. “Rather, CP Section 8-301(a)(2) requires only that defense counsel exercise due diligence to discover evidence.”
The Maryland attorney general’s office said in a statement that it is “reviewing the lengthy opinion.” The office has the option to seek review by the Court of Appeals.
Smith’s attorney, Bryce Benjet, did not return a telephone message Thursday seeking comment on the decision. Benjet is with the New York-based Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate convicts it believes were wrongly convicted.
Smith was found guilty of felony murder in the Jan. 5, 1987, stabbing death of Adeline Wilford during a robbery at her farmhouse and was sentenced to life in prison.
The evidence at trial included testimony from Smith’s aunt, Beverly Haddaway, who said he had confessed the killing to her in 1989 and again in April 2000. She recorded that latter conversation at the Maryland State Police’s direction.
However, it could be evidence not presented at trial that sets Smith free.
That evidence includes a pretrial recording of Haddaway’s conversation with police in which she apparently agrees to testify in return for the state’s promise not to prosecute her grandson in an unrelated case. The defense now also has palm prints taken from the farmhouse’s utility room that point to another man as the potential killer.
The Talbot County Circuit Court rejected Smith’s petition for writ of actual innocence last year, saying the evidence could not be used now to show Smith’s innocence because his defense counsel could have discovered it at the time of trial.
But the Court of Special Appeals disagreed.
Smith’s post-conviction attorney needed a Maryland Public Information Act request to get the recording of Haddaway’s conversation with police. That request should have been unnecessary as prosecutors were required at the time of the 2001 trial to have turned it over to the defense as potentially exculpatory evidence under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland, the Court of Special Appeals said.
“We hold that the due diligence requirement in CP Section 8-301 does not encompass a requirement that a defendant file a MPIA request with the police, or other agency that reports to the prosecutor, seeking information that the state is required to disclose pursuant to Brady and (Maryland) Rule 4-263,” Graeff wrote. “As (Smith’s attorney) notes, a criminal defendant should be able to rely upon the state to comply with Brady and discovery obligations.”
In addition, Smith’s trial counsel could not have been expected to seek the palm print evidence pointing to another suspect because the technology for an accurate match did not become available until recently, the appellate court added.
The Court of Special Appeals returned the case to the circuit court with instructions that it “consider whether, if the jury that convicted (Smith) had the benefit of the (pretrial) tapes and the palm print evidence, there is a substantial or significant possibility that the result of the trial would have been different.”
Judges Timothy E. Meredith and Michael W. Reed joined Graeff’s opinion in Jonathan D. Smith v. State of Maryland, Nos. 1069 and 1879, September Term 2016.