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Justices show interest in hearing Germantown murderer’s appeal

The U.S. Supreme Court has shown interest in hearing the appeal of a woman sentenced to life in prison for the first-degree murder of her husband’s ex-wife in Germantown seven years ago.

The justices have asked the Maryland Attorney General’s Office to respond to Raminder Kaur’s request that they hear her argument that she was denied a fair trial because prosecutors were privy to her privileged communications with her lawyer as well as the attorney’s investigative materials. The office had waived its right to respond unless the high court requested a response.

That request came March 12. The office’s response is due May 13.

The Supreme Court has not set a date for its vote on whether to hear Kaur’s appeal. The case is docketed at the high court as Raminder Kaur v. State of Maryland, No. 19-1045.

Kaur was convicted twice of shooting Preeta Gabba to death shortly after she left home to catch a bus to work on Oct. 12, 2013.

Kaur was afforded the second trial based on her successful claim that she had received ineffective assistance of counsel in the first proceeding. She alleged her lawyer was unprepared for trial, failed to raise the issue of Kaur’s competency to stand trial, and did not issue subpoenas for documents related to potential defenses.

To prove her counsel ineffective, Kaur had to provide documentation of her communications with her attorney, as well as documents related to the lawyer’s investigation. Prosecutors were provided access to this generally privileged information as part of their ultimately unsuccessful challenge to Kaur’s ineffective-assistance claim and bid for a retrial.

Those same prosecutors retried Kaur — and again won conviction — without relying on any information gleaned from the documents they had seen and without changing their trial strategy.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the state’s second-highest court, cited the prosecutors’ lack of reliance or change in strategy in upholding Kaur’s conviction in an unreported opinion last year. In October, the Maryland Court of Appeals denied without comment Kaur’s petition for review, prompting her appeal to the Supreme Court.

In her request to the justices, Kaur argued through counsel that the prosecution’s access to her privileged communications with counsel tainted the second trial regardless of whether prosecutors relied on the information or changed their trial strategy.

The prosecution’s knowledge of what Kaur and her attorney discussed was sufficient to undermine her ability to mount an effective defense in violation of the Sixth Amendment guarantee of effective assistance of counsel, stated Samuel B. Davidoff, Kaur’s lead counsel before the high court.

“This principle – that the disclosure of privileged communications relating to strategy for an upcoming criminal trial is inherently prejudicial – has been readily adopted by lower courts,” wrote Davidoff, of Williams & Connolly LLP in Washington. “Indeed, no federal court of appeals or state court of last resort has ever, until the Maryland court’s decision here, suggested the Constitution permits trial following such a disclosure unless the defendant can show that the disclosure caused a radical change in the prosecution’s theory of the case.”

In Kaur’s case, the prosecution’s consistent theory was that she and her husband, Baldeo Taneja, conspired to kill Gabba, and that Kaur fired the three fatal shots at close range.

Three witnesses at the 7:45 a.m. slaying all testified they saw a woman fleeing the scene.

Prosecutors said the motive for the killing was to relieve Taneja of his obligations to pay Gabba $2,400 per month in alimony and to transfer what had been their marital property in India. The day after the slaying, arresting officers found in Taneja and Kaur’s car a .357 Luger LCR revolver, which was later identified as the murder weapon.

At Kaur’s second trial, her new defense counsel countered that Taneja, acting alone, shot Gabba while disguised as a woman. Counsel noted that police had also found a wig in the car and that Taneja’s fingerprints were on the gun.

But a Montgomery County Circuit Court jury — just as an earlier one had at her first trial — found Kaur guilty in 2016 of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and use of a handgun in a violent crime. She was sentenced to life in prison.

Kaur then sought review by the Court of Special Appeals.

Taneja was tried with Kaur at the first trial, in 2014, and was also convicted of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and use of a handgun in a violent crime. He was also sentenced to life in prison.

Taneja is not a party to Kaur’s petition for Supreme Court review.

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