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Md. court: Hearsay does not apply in battered-spouse-defense trials

Court of Special Appeals deems batterer's taunts admissible

Trial judges must admit an alleged batterer’s taunts into evidence at murder trials when the defense is battered-spouse syndrome, Maryland’s second-highest court ruled Thursday in overturning the conviction and life sentence of a girlfriend who fatally shot her boyfriend in Greenbelt.

Abusive taunts are being introduced for their psychological impact on the accused killer and not for the truth of what the abuser was saying, thus they do not constitute impermissible hearsay, the Court of Special Appeals said in its reported, 3-0 decision.

Therefore, a Prince George’s County Circuit Court judge should have allowed Tania Renee Wallace-Bey’s jury to hear her and her psychologist testify regarding exactly what Julius Whaley said to the accused before, during and after he allegedly raped and otherwise attacked her on many occasions, the appellate court added. The jurors should have had the chance to consider those comments in determining whether Whaley’s actions and taunts against Wallace-Bey instilled such fear that it justified her shooting him in self-defense as a “battered spouse,” the court added in sending the case back for a new trial.

In its decision, the Court of Special Appeals cited three of Whaley’s comments: “Get naked,” “You are not leaving” and — in particular — “You need to learn to take the d—.”

“Even if Whaley’s alleged remark were an assertion of some kind, defense counsel certainly was not offering that testimony to prove the ‘truth’ of whatever vile message he was allegedly asserting,” Judge Kevin F. Arthur wrote for the court. “Defense counsel introduced that (third) statement to show how Wallace-Bey understood that Whaley was going to rape her at that time. The decision to strike that testimony was particularly aberrant, because Wallace-Bey’s testimony about those words was important to evaluating her perception that Whaley would assault her again when she shot him minutes later.”

Wallace-Bey called 911 hours after she had killed Whaley with a single gunshot to the chest at his apartment Oct. 24, 2007. She told paramedics she had spent the intervening time attempting to kill herself with pills and alcohol, the court’s opinion stated.

Two months later, a Prince George’s County grand jury indicted her for first-degree murder and use of a handgun in a violent crime. Her conviction for first-degree murder was overturned due to ineffective assistance from an attorney who declined to argue battered-spouse syndrome, a recognized defense under Maryland law.

At her second trial, in March 2016, the state contended that Wallace-Bey visited Whaley intent on killing him and then herself but that the suicide attempt failed.

The defense argued battered-spouse syndrome but prosecutors raised a hearsay objection every time Wallace-Bey or her psychologist was about to testify to something Whaley had said. The objections were granted.

The jury convicted Wallace-Bey of first-degree premeditated murder and using a handgun in a violent crime. She was sentenced to life in prison for the murder and 20 more years for the handgun conviction.

Wallace-Bey then sought review by the Court of Special Appeals, successfully arguing through counsel that the hearsay objections should have been overruled.

Assistant Maryland Public Defender Michael Torres, Wallace-Bey’s appellate attorney, hailed the court’s ruling.

“It certainly sheds an important light on the battered-spouse statute and deals with some issues that need to be dealt with,” Torres said Friday. “The court certainly spent a fair amount of time explaining what is hearsay and what is a statement being introduced for the truth of the matter asserted. The court did a very thorough exposition on that.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office is reviewing the decision, a spokeswoman replied via email when asked if the decision would be appealed to the state’s top court, the Court of the Appeals.

Judges Douglas R.M. Nazarian and Dan Friedman joined Arthur’s opinion in Tania Renee Wallace-Bey v. State of Maryland, No. 476 September 2016.

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