A divided Maryland high court last week reinstated a man’s first-degree felony murder conviction, saying his attorney’s failure to request a jury instruction on the defense of alibi did not affect the jurors’ guilty verdict — even though four people had testified at trial that he was most likely not at the 2003 slaying.
Had it been requested, the jury instruction would not have led to the “reasonable probability, or a substantial or significant possibility, that the jury would have acquitted” Christopher Mann in the killing of Ricky Prince, the Court of Appeals stated in its 5-2 decision Thursday.
The high court said none of the witnesses’ testimony indicated that Mann “could not have been at the murder scene.” In addition, the trail judge’s instruction that the state must prove Mann’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt obviated the need for a jury instruction on alibi, the court said.
The Court of Appeals’ rejection of Mann’s argument that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial followed its similar decision earlier this year that the failure by “Serial” podcast subject Adnan Syed’s attorney to investigate an alibi witness had no effect on the jury finding him guilty of first-degree murder.
The U.S. Supreme Court let Syed’s conviction stand without comment in November.
Mann’s trial counsel put on a strong alibi defense in Baltimore City Circuit Court. Witnesses provided accounts of Mann’s whereabouts from the evening of April 22, 2003, to the following morning, hours during which prosecutors said Mann’s accomplice Tayvon Whetstone shot Prince to death.
But Mann’s trial attorney did not ask the judge to instruct the jurors that they may consider the alibi evidence in deciding whether the state had proven Mann’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The jury ultimately found Mann guilty in 2004 of felony murder as well as kidnapping and conspiracy to kidnap.
Nearly 14 years later, the Baltimore City Circuit Court ruled in a post-conviction proceeding that Mann had received ineffective assistance of counsel based on the failure to request an alibi instruction. The intermediate Court of Special Appeals affirmed the 2017 decision, prompting the state’s successful request that the high court reinstate the convictions despite the trial attorney’s failure.
“The circumstance that Mann’s trial counsel did not request an alibi jury instruction did not prejudice Mann because none of the four purported alibi witnesses’ testimony led to the conclusion that Mann could not have been at the murder scene when Whetstone shot Prince,” Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote for the Court of Appeals majority. “Additionally, the trial court twice instructed the jury that the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt remains on the state throughout the trial, thereby undermining Mann’s claim of prejudice with respect to trial counsel’s failure to request an alibi jury instruction.”
Mann’s appellate attorney, William L. Welch III of Columbia, did not return a telephone message Monday seeking comment on the decision or on any plans to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Maryland attorney general’s office declined to comment on the Court of Appeals’ ruling.
Watts was joined in the opinion by Judges Robert N. McDonald and Brynja M. Booth, as well as Glenn T. Harrell Jr. and Clayton Greene, retired jurists sitting by special assignment.
In dissent, Judge Michele D. Hotten said the trial attorney’s decision to mount an alibi defense but then fail to seek a jury instruction addressing that defense violated Mann’s constitutional Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. The failure likely affected the jury’s verdict and was not corrected by the judge’s general instruction that the state must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, wrote Hotten, who was joined in dissent by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera.
“The defense presented four alibi witnesses that were able to account for some of Mr. Mann’s whereabouts on the evening in question,” Hotten wrote.
“Guided by an alibi instruction, and weighing the credibility of the witnesses and the evidence presented, a jury could have determined that Mr. Prince was killed during the times accounted for by the alibi witnesses,” Hotten added. “Because the jury did not receive the alibi instruction and at least one juror could have incorrectly shifted the burden to the defense to prove said alibi, there exists a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been affected.”
The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in State of Maryland v. Christopher Mann, No. 29, September Term 2019.