Legislation that would allow prosecutors to seek to vacate convictions they no longer have faith in passed the House of Delegates Thursday after being amended in committee to limit its scope.
House Bill 874 was designed in part to address an issue in Baltimore: State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby’s office is attempting to vacate hundreds of convictions that relied heavily on testimony from corrupt Gun Trace Task Force officers.
Mosby told House and Senate committees last month that some judges are denying joint motions to vacate filed by the state and the Maryland Office of the Public Defender because the judges do not think the law allows the relief.
Supporters, including Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy and Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe, said the bill is not just a Baltimore issue but rather provides all prosecutors a tool to act with integrity and fairness.
The amended bill allows the state to move to vacate a conviction or a probation before judgment when newly discovered evidence “creates a substantial or significant possibility that the result would have been different” or when the state can present information that either justifies vacating “in the interest of justice and fairness” or that otherwise calls into question the integrity of a conviction.
The House approved the bill by a 98-41 vote Thursday evening without any debate on the floor.
The cross-file, Senate Bill 676, is sponsored by Sen. Chris West, R-Baltimore County. It had not received a committee vote as of Friday.
“We are pleased that HB 874 passed the House and are hopeful that the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee will follow suit, bringing us one step closer to fully passing this much-needed legislation, which would give prosecutors all over the state another essential tool to proactively pursue justice on all fronts,” a spokeswoman for Mosby’s office said Friday.
In committee hearings, some legislators asked why the tool was necessary when other tools are available to undo a conviction. Mosby and others said existing remedies are insufficient in cases such as the GTTF-related convictions, which involve testimony from officers later found to have engaged in widespread criminal conduct.
Sponsor Del. Erek Barron, D-Prince George’s, said Friday the main point of the bill is to provide prosecutors with a mechanism for cases such as the GTTF-related convictions.
“I’m always cautiously optimistic, but this is really just fixing a glaring hole, at this point, in the ability to correct wrongful convictions,” he said.
The original bill was broader and addressed another Mosby initiative: an attempt to vacate thousands of convictions for possession of marijuana. The Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association opposed the original bill, but after it was amended in both committees to remove provisions regarding marijuana and paraphernalia convictions, the association expressed support.
Despite the amendment, the House bill was opposed by Republican members of the Judiciary Committee and appears to have been voted out of the House on party lines. A vote count was not available online Friday.
Del. Susan K. McComas, R-Harford, said the general concern from her fellow Republicans on the committee was that the bill is not necessary because a solution exists in the current law, including courts’ revisory power to grant new trials as allowed by the Maryland Rules.
“I’ve gotten the impression from several folks … that it was really not necessary,” she said of the bill. “We’re just putting one more major burden on the system and I think that maybe we could have looked at more ways to do this.”
McComas said she would like more information about the post-conviction options being explored and the impact of the law change.
Wayne A. Hartman, R-Wicomico and Worcester, said he spoke with the elected state’s attorneys in his jurisdiction, who, he said, did not think the tool was necessary and were concerned about potentially uneven applications among jurisdictions creating inequities.
“I understand the need coming out of Baltimore City … but I have concerns about the state’s attorney there not having the desire to enforce other state laws and expanding the reach of this,” he said, referring to Mosby’s announcement that her office would no longer prosecute marijuana possession cases.
Barron said he thinks there may be a misunderstanding about what the bill does. Noting the Senate bill’s Republican sponsor, he called the bill a bipartisan effort.
“It’s a bipartisan bill,” Barron said. “I think there’s just a misunderstanding in the midst of a very busy voting session.”