A convicted first-degree murderer will have the chance for a new trial after Maryland’s top court Tuesday unanimously ruled he deserves a hearing on his claim that evidence found after his conviction should have been presented before the jury.
In its 7-0 decision, the Court of Appeals said it remains to be determined whether Ronald Cornish — who is serving a life sentence plus 20 years — deserves to be retried for a 2012 Baltimore slaying based on the belated discovery that the state’s key witness had made pre-trial statements to police and a deal with prosecutors that conflicted with his damning court testimony.
However, Cornish made a sufficient preliminary showing that the evidence is “newly discovered” and potentially exculpatory, thus entitling him to a circuit-court hearing on his bid for a new trial, the high court said.
At the hearing, the prosecution will have the opportunity to show the evidence was in fact not newly discovered and that Cornish is not entitled to a new trial, the Court of Appeals added.
The Baltimore City Circuit Court had denied Cornish’s request for a hearing, saying he had failed to satisfy the threshold claim that witness Richard Pope’s conflicting statements were newly discovered by the defense and not provided to it by the prosecution or discoverable with due diligence.
The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the denial, prompting Cornish’s appeal to the high court.
In his request, Cornish stated that Pope’s testimony definitively linking him to the killing – as well as Pope’s testimony that he came forward because it was the “right thing to do” – was belied by the newly discovered evidence. These belated discoveries included Pope’s statement to police that Cornish had “apparently” killed Warren Boone and that Pope had received immunity from prosecution, contradicting his claim of noble motive, Cornish’s request stated.
Cornish also claims prosecutors were obligated to disclose to him, as potentially exculpatory evidence, Pope’s uncertainty regarding the slaying and his immunity deal.
The high court deemed Cornish’s claim of newly discovered evidence sufficient to warrant at least a hearing on his bid for a new trial under Maryland criminal procedure rule 4-331. Cornish will have to show at the hearing that Pope’s pre-trial statement and immunity deal were indeed newly discovered and not provided by the prosecution or available through due diligence, the court added.
In granting Cornish a hearing, the high court acknowledged his argument that Pope’s apparently conflicting statements could lead to a not guilty verdict if a retrial is ordered.
“Mr. Pope’s testimony was the primary evidence offered by the state to prove Mr. Cornish’s guilt,” Judge Clayton Greene Jr. wrote for the court. “Any doubt as to Mr. Pope’s credibility is material because of the state’s substantial reliance on his testimony to establish the guilt of Mr. Cornish.”
Pope testified that he and Cornish met with Boone inside of Boone’s car on Nov. 7, 2012, with plans to sell him marijuana. After Pope left the car, he said he heard a struggle between Cornish and Boone followed by two gunshots.
Cornish then told Pope to help him drag Boone’s body out of the car and into the woods, Pope testified at the 2016 trial, adding that he and Cornish burglarized Boone’s house the next day before setting the vehicle on fire and abandoning it in the woods in west Baltimore.
In addition to first-degree murder, Cornish was convicted of use of a firearm in a violent crime and related offenses. He was sentenced on Jan. 9, 2017.
Two weeks later, Cornish’s defense counsel discovered that Pope was under police investigation for various crimes at the time of Boone’s slaying, according to the hearing request. During these unrelated investigations, Pope spoke to the police about the killing, including Cornish’s “apparent” involvement, the request stated.
Defense counsel also discovered that Pope had reached an immunity deal with prosecutors regarding the Boone slaying, the request added.
Counsel then filed the motion for a new trial.
The Maryland attorney general’s office said in statement Tuesday that it is reviewing the high court’s decision.
Assistant Maryland Public Defender Amy Brennan, Cornish’s appellate attorney, did not return a telephone message Tuesday seeking comment on the court’s ruling.
The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Ronald Cornish v. State of Maryland, No. 12 September Term 2018.