Maryland’s top court has upheld an armed robbery conviction even though defense counsel failed to exclude from the jury a juror who acknowledged before trial his potential bias against accused thieves.
In its 6-1 decision Friday, the Court of Appeals said that the attorney’s failure showed ineffective assistance of counsel but that the evidence against Edinson Herrera Ramirez was so strong that the juror’s presence on the jury had no effect on its ultimate verdict of guilty.
The court noted that the then-prospective juror said that he had been a burglary victim and that the trauma would affect his ability to be fair and impartial. The defense attorney neither asked follow-up questions nor requested the person’s removal from the jury, the court added.
However, the prosecution presented “overwhelming” evidence that Ramirez was the man wearing an orange ski mask and brandishing a sawed-off shotgun in robbing Rodney and Linda Hidey of the $80,000 in their house safe in Westminster in October 2004, the high court said. The evidence presented to the Carroll County Circuit Court jury included testimony not only from the Hideys but also from the getaway driver, the court added.
“No reasonable lawyer in Ramirez’s trial counsel’s position would have, as she did, refrained from asking or requesting any follow-up questions of Juror 27, refrained from moving to strike him for cause based on the ‘crime victim’ question, and refrained from exercising a peremptory challenge as to Juror 27,” Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote for the court. “Trial counsel’s failure to take any action whatsoever with respect to Juror 27 was conduct that fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.”
But, the high court added, the jury submitted no requests for clarification from the judge and deliberated only three hours before finding Ramirez guilty of 11 charges, including armed robbery.
“These circumstances support our determination that the state’s evidence was strong — indeed, overwhelming – and that there is no substantial or significant possibility that the outcome of the trial would have been different but for Juror 27’s presence on the jury,” Watts wrote in affirming a decision by the intermediate Court of Special Appeals.
The high court’s ruling drew an impassioned dissent from Judge Robert N. McDonald, who said the defense counsel’s failure to strike the juror who could not pledge impartiality rendered the resulting trial “fundamentally unfair” from the outset.
“An indispensable element of a fair trial is an impartial arbiter,” McDonald wrote.
“The majority opinion seems to hold that a defendant who has been found guilty by a jury that included an admittedly biased juror must have evidence of prejudice beyond the biased individual’s presence on the jury,” McDonald added. “The logic seems to be that, if the evidence is strong enough, it does not matter whether one is tried by an impartial tribunal. … We should not adopt such a principle.”
Ramirez’s appellate attorney, J. Paul Krawczyk Jr. of Bel Air, did not return a telephone message seeking comment on the decision.
The Maryland Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the decision.
The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Edinson Herrera Ramirez v. State of Maryland, No. 72, September Term 2018.
The high court’s decision was the second in recent months in which the court held that an attorney’s performance was constitutionally ineffective but that the deficiency did not prejudice the defendant due to the evidence against the defendant.
In March, the Court of Appeals reinstated the first-degree murder conviction of Adnan Syed, whose defense attorney had not interviewed the defendant’s sole alibi witness and whose legal travails were recounted in the podcast “Serial.”
Syed’s appellate attorneys said they would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.