A unanimous Maryland high court Thursday refused to reinstate a first-degree murder conviction in Baltimore, saying the judge violated the defendant’s due-process rights by reopening the trial – on his own motion – so the state could present damaging palm-print testimony.
Baltimore City Circuit Judge Stephen J. Sfekas “essentially acted as a prosecutor” and tipped the balance in the state’s favor by calling for the testimony after the prosecution had rested its case against Brandon Payton, the Court of Appeals stated in its 7-0 decision.
In doing so, Sfekas – who retired last year – “exceeded the bounds of judicial impartiality,” the court added.
A defendant’s “right to an impartial and disinterested judge includes the right to a judge with the appearance of being impartial and disinterested,” Judge Clayton Greene wrote for the court. “For us to condone such a procedure (as in Payton’s case) would result in two grave consequences: 1) there would be no finality when a prosecutor closes his or her case and 2) a trial judge would be able to take over the prosecution of a criminal case without violating the defendant’s right to a fair and impartial trial.”
The high court’s decision marks no “hard and fast rule” against judges from ever allowing the state to reopen its criminal case, Greene wrote.
But the trial judge’s discretion in such instances is very limited and the defendant’s “ability to answer and receive a fair trial” must be preserved, Greene added.
Payton, who may be retried, was convicted of killing Steven Bass on a Baltimore spring evening three years ago and sentenced to life in prison. The intermediate Court of Special Appeals vacated the conviction in February, saying Sfekas denied Payton a fair trial two years ago by enabling the state to present additional testimony after having rested its case.
Before re-opening the state’s case, 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 hear again from Sean Dorr, a certified print examiner for the city police.
Sfekas said Dorr should clarify his earlier testimony linking the print to Payton and that the testimony should again be subject to the defense’s cross-examination. Sfekas said the additional testimony would also help him decide whether to grant Payton’s motion for acquittal, which the judge subsequently rejected.
The high court, however, said Sfekas abused his judicial discretion in providing this second round for the prosecution.
“By reopening the state’s case to recall Mr. Dorr, instead of ruling on (Payton’s) motion, the trial judge permitted the state to present the crux of its case to the jury for a second time,” Greene wrote.
“The prejudicial impact of this doubling down on one piece of evidence is exacerbated by the fact that Mr. Dorr’s testimony on reopening was elicited two days after the state rested and in isolation of other evidence in the case,” Greene added. “Mr. Dorr was the only witness to testify twice and his testimony was the last evidence the jury heard before convening. Thus, the trial judge’s decision to reopen the state’s case critically affected (Payton’s) right to receive a fair trial.”
The Maryland attorney general’s office, which had urged the high court to reinstate the conviction, faulted Sfekas for the verdict being overturned.
“The state in its case-in-chief established that the palm print left by the fleeing shooter belonged to Mr. Payton,” the office said in a statement Friday. “It is unfortunate that the trial court’s confusion on this issue led to an unnecessary reopening of the state’s case and, ultimately, Mr. Payton receiving a new trial.”
Assistant Maryland Public Defender Celia Anderson Davis, Payton’s appellate attorney, declined to comment on the ruling.
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 rendered its decision in State of Maryland v. Brandon Payton, No. 14, September Term 2018.