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Md. high court overturns child-abuse conviction

Court of Appeals cites incorrect jury instruction

Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Clayton Greene, Jr. in 2007. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz.)

Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Clayton Greene, Jr. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz.)

ANNAPOLIS – Saying the jury was improperly instructed on the violent crime’s elements, a divided Maryland high court has overturned the first-degree child abuse conviction of a father who allegedly wrapped his son in plastic and tied his wrists to prevent him from harming himself and attacking his siblings.

In its 5-2 decision Friday, the Court of Appeals said the trial judge’s failure to tell the jurors that child abuse under Maryland law involves not just a serious injury to the youngster but one that is “permanent or protracted” entitles Craig Williams to a new trial.

The mistaken instruction eased the prosecution’s burden of proving the permanence of the child’s injuries, the high court’s majority held. The dissent said the mistake was harmless as the medical expert at trial testified that the child’s wrist injuries would never completely heal.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Anne K. Albright’s error was in following the then-pattern jury instruction, which called for jurors to be told that a severe physical injury causes a substantial risk of death, permanent or protracted serious disfigurement or loss, impairment or loss of proper function of a body part, the high court said. The pattern instruction at the time did not make clear that “permanent or protracted applies to loss of function and impairment, as well as disfigurement, under the statutory definition of first-degree child abuse.

The pattern instruction has since been changed to reflect the child-abuse statute.

“According to the jury instruction that was given, it was unclear if “permanent or protracted serious” applied to both disfigurement and loss or impairment of the function of an organ of the body,” Judge Clayton Greene Jr. wrote for the majority.

“The lack of clarity in the instruction clearly prejudiced Mr. Williams and lowered (the state’s) burden to establish Mr. Williams’ guilt,” Greene added. “Upon our review, we cannot say that Mr. Williams was not harmed by this error beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Greene was joined in the opinion by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Judges Robert N. McDonald, Michele D. Hotten and Sally D. Adkins, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

Prosecutors alleged that Williams had wrapped his son from his shoulders to his knees in plastic wrap and secured his wrists with zip ties in November 2015 to prevent him from hurting himself and attacking his siblings while the family slept.

When the child’s writs became chafed and puffy, Williams took him to Shady Grove Hospital in Rockville, where the youngster – identified in court papers as I.W. — was operated on in an effort to relieve nerve and muscle damage in his wrists, according to court documents.

Dr. Benjamin Martin, an orthopedist and the state’s medical expert in the case, stated at Williams’ 2016 trial in Montgomery County Circuit Court that the child’s wrist function “is nowhere near normal” and that he wouldn’t “make any miraculous recoveries from where he is now.”

Williams’ trial counsel objected to the doctor’s characterization of the injury and challenged it on cross-examination, making the permanence of the injuries a question for the jury, as required under the statutory definition of first-degree child abuse, the Court of Appeals stated.

However, the trial judge’s failure to make this clear in the jury instructions invalidates Williams’ conviction and six-year prison sentence, which the intermediate Court of Special Appeals erroneously affirmed in an unreported opinion, the high court added.

In dissent, Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote that the incorrect jury instruction did not affect the jurors’ verdict because the medical testimony at trial was that the child’s injuries were “permanent or protracted,” even though the expert had not used those words.

“Dr. Martin was not required to use the terms ‘serious’ or ‘permanent or protracted’ to provide ample evidence that I.W.’s injuries were serious and permanent or protracted,” Watts wrote in a dissent Judge Joseph M. Getty joined.

“Dr. Martin’s testimony that I.W.’s hands’ functioning was ‘nowhere near normal’ unequivocally established that his injuries were serious.” Watts added. “And Dr. Martin’s testimony that ‘restor[ing] normal function is pretty much impossible to do’ clearly showed that I.W.’s injuries were permanent or protracted.”

In a statement Tuesday, the Maryland attorney general’s office called it “unfortunate that Williams will receive a new trial given this uncontested evidence about the injuries that he caused his son.”

J. Bradford McCullough, Williams’ appellate counsel, hailed the court’s decision.

“This is a case where the erroneous jury instruction clearly had an impact on the jury’s verdict,” McCullough, of Lerch, Early & Brewer Chtd. in Bethesda, said Tuesday.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Craig Williams v. State of Maryland, No. 13, September 2018.

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