ANNAPOLIS — A defense attorney urged Maryland’s top court Wednesday not to reinstate a first-degree murder conviction, saying the judge violated the defendant’s due-process rights by reopening the trial – on the jurist’s own motion — so the state could present damaging palm-print evidence.
The judge abandoned his role as a “neutral arbiter” and “tipped the balance in favor of the state” by reopening the case without even a request from the prosecution, Assistant Maryland Public Defender Celia Anderson Davis told the Court of Appeals.
“The judge stepped out of bounds to help the state a little bit,” Davis added. “The trial judge departed from that position of neutrality.”
Davis was pressing the case of Brandon Payton, who was convicted of the slaying of Steven Bass on a Baltimore spring evening three year years ago and sentenced to life in prison. The intermediate Court of Special Appeals vacated the conviction in February, saying Baltimore City Circuit Judge Stephen J. Sfekas, who retired last year, denied Payton a fair trial two years ago by enabling the state to present more evidence after having rested its case.
In urging the high court to reinstate the conviction, Assistant Maryland Attorney General Gary E. O’Connor said the judge’s reopening was not only fair but perhaps favored the defense. Payton’s defense counsel vigorously cross-examined the state’s palm-print expert, bringing into question the validity of its asserted link to the defendant, O’Connor said.
But that argument drew skepticism from Court of Appeals Judge Clayton Greene Jr., who said that if Sfekas had favored the defense he would have granted its then-pending request for a motion of acquittal rather than reopen the case for the prosecution.
In reopening the trial, Sfekas said outside the jury’s presence that his action was unusual and he invited the defense to object, which it did, according to court transcripts. Sfekas denied the objection, saying the jury should get a full airing of the palm-print evidence, its asserted link to Dayton and the defense’s cross-examination.
Sfekas also noted it was a first-degree murder trial and the testimony would help him decide whether to grant the defense’s motion for acquittal, which he eventually denied.
But Davis said the jurors – though not present when Sfekas spoke with the prosecution and defense — “must have felt that (palm print) was very important evidence” or the judge would not have reopened the case so they could hear it.
“That definitely impairs the right to a fair trial,” Davis told the high court.
Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera asked whether judges should be given deference when they reopen a trial, because they have their “finger on the pulse” of the proceedings.
Davis replied judges do not have discretion to reopen when no request was made by the prosecution and when the state had the opportunity to present the evidence during the trial. This rule applies whether a defendant is on trial for murder or a minor offense, she added.
“The standards of impartiality and due process do not change depending on the seriousness of the crime,” Davis told the court.
O’Connor countered judges do have discretion to reopen a trial to ensure its fairness to the defendant. The need for fairness could require the judge to give the defense another opportunity to challenge the state’s key evidence, such as a palm print alleged to link the defendant to the crime, O’Connor said.
According to prosecutors, Payton was disguised as a woman on June 12, 2015, when he shot Bass multiple times on the 2200 block of North Fulton Avenue. A witness said Payton – dressed in a woman’s summer hat, multicolored blouse, light blue pants, Timberland boots and carrying a purse – put his hand on the hood of a witness’s car before the slaying.
Police used the palm print and a law-enforcement database to link the killing to Payton, a connection prosecutors continued to draw after Sfekas reopened the case.
The jury found Payton guilty in September 2016 of first-degree murder and use of a firearm in a violent crime. He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder and an additional 20 years for the firearm offense, prompting his appeal to the Court of Special Appeals and the state’s bid for high-court review.
The Court of Appeals is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in the case, State of Maryland v. Brandon Payton, No. 14 September Term 2018.