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Maryland urges justices to reject ineffective-assistance appeal

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office on Monday urged the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear a convicted armed robber’s argument that his conviction should be overturned because his defense attorney failed to exclude from the jury a juror who acknowledged before trial his potential bias against accused thieves.

In papers filed with the justices, the office said Maryland’s top court correctly ruled that Edinson Ramirez’s defense lawyer’s failure showed ineffective assistance of counsel but the evidence against him was so strong that the juror’s presence on the jury had no effect on its ultimate verdict of guilty.

“Ramirez’s only claim below was the claim he makes in his petition for (review): that reversal was required because Juror 27’s participation on the jury constituted structural error that affected the fundamental fairness of his trial,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Carrie J. Williams, the office’s counsel of record before the Supreme Court.

But Ramirez has “not shown that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s deficient performance, the result of the trial would have been different,” added Williams, who heads Attorney General Brian E. Frosh’s criminal appeals division.

Williams’ filing came at the Supreme Court’s request as the justices weigh whether to hear Ramirez’s appeal of the Maryland Court of Appeals’ ruling. Ramirez filed his request for Supreme Court review himself but has since retained appellate attorney Steven M. Klepper to represent him before the justices.

Klepper, of Kramon & Graham P.A. in Baltimore, said he is serving as Ramirez’s attorney at no charge.

The justices have not set a date for a vote on whether to hear Ramirez’s appeal. The case is docketed at the high court as Edinson Herrera Ramirez v. State of Maryland, No. 19-6252.

In his written request for review, Ramirez stated his trial attorney’s failure to strike the juror violated his constitutional “right to a fair and impartial jury.”

“If a defendant is convicted by a jury that contains a biased juror, how can this not be prejudicial on its face?” Ramirez wrote. “Being deprived of a most basic fundamental right is prejudicial.”

Before Ramirez’s trial, 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. Ramirez’s defense attorney neither asked follow-up questions nor requested the person’s removal from the jury, according to the Court of Appeals’ decision.

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 Maryland high court stated in its 6-1 ruling in July. 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. He was sentenced to 95 years in prison.

“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 petition presents the justices with the same Sixth Amendment issue that was presented to them in a review request by convicted Maryland murderer Adnan Syed, whose case was recounted in the “Serial” podcast.

Syed, through counsel, also appealed his conviction based on the argument that his defense attorney’s concededly ineffective assistance had a prejudicial effect on the jury, thus depriving him of a fair trial.

The justices in November declined without comment to hear Syed’s appeal.