In a final plea for the Supreme Court to hear his appeal, a convicted Westminster armed robber told the justices Monday that his trial attorney’s failure to exclude from the jury a juror who had acknowledged potential bias against accused thieves rendered the conviction invalid despite the evidence of guilt.
In papers filed with the high court, Edinson Ramirez stated through counsel that his trial lawyer’s egregious error during jury selection, or voir dire, showed ineffective legal assistance – a constitutional violation consummated by the impaneling of the biased juror.
“Voir dire serves to weed out jurors who cannot render a fair and impartial verdict,” wrote Steven M. Klepper, Ramirez’s lead counsel before the justices.
“Regardless of the strength of the prosecution’s evidence, a biased juror negates the ‘impartial tribunal’ required for a ‘fair trial’ under Strickland v. Washington,” Klepper added, citing the Supreme Court’s landmark 1984 decision on the right to effective assistance of counsel.
Ramirez is urging the justices to review and overturn a ruling by Maryland’s top court that his defense lawyer’s failure showed ineffective assistance of counsel but that the evidence against Ramirez was so strong the juror’s presence on the jury had no effect on its ultimate verdict of guilty.
The Supreme Court has not stated when it will vote on Ramirez’s request for review. The case is docketed at the high court as Edinson Herrera Ramirez v. State of Maryland, No. 19-6252.
Ramirez was representing himself when he filed his initial appeal to the Supreme Court in September. The justices were sufficiently moved by Ramirez’s filing that they requested a response from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office after it had waived its right to respond.
In its Jan. 13 response, the office said the Maryland Court of Appeals correctly held that the evidence of Ramirez’s guilt outweighed his trial attorney’s error.
“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.
Klepper, who was retained by Ramirez, said he is representing Ramirez at no charge. Louis P. Malick is serving as Klepper’s co-counsel.
Both attorneys are with Kramon & Graham P.A. in Baltimore.
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.