Maryland’s attorney general has urged the U.S. Supreme Court to let stand the first-degree murder conviction and life sentence of a woman who killed her husband’s ex-wife in Germantown seven years ago.
In papers filed Friday with the justices, Brian E. Frosh pressed the high court not to hear Raminder Kaur’s argument that she was denied a fair trial because prosecutors were privy to her privileged communications with her first defense attorney as well as that lawyer’s investigative materials.
Frosh said Kaur’s defense was not harmed by the prosecution’s access to the attorney-client information, as prosecutors did not change their trial strategy after the discovery.
The information was revealed during Kaur’s successful ineffective assistance of counsel claim against her first lawyer, a victory that overturned her initial conviction and led to the controversial second trial and guilty verdict.
Frosh’s office had waived its right to respond to Kaur’s petition for Supreme Court review unless the justices specifically requested a response. The high court made that request in March.
“(W)hen, as here, the information is obtained after the initial prosecution, a ‘seismic shift’ in trial strategy – as demonstrated by, for example, prosecutors changing the theory of the case, or calling different witnesses in a retrial – would serve as strong evidence of prejudice stemming from the disclosure,” wrote Assistant Maryland Attorney General Carrie J. Williams, the state’s counsel of record before the high court.
“On the other hand, a defendant can be reasonably assured that the disclosure did not operate to her detriment if a subsequent prosecution tracks the initial prosecution (as the Court of Special Appeals determined here that it did),” added Williams, who heads Frosh’s criminal appeals division.
The justices have not said when they will vote on Kaur’s request for their review. The case is 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 she had received ineffective assistance the first time. She alleged her lawyer was unprepared for trial, failed to raise the issue of Kaur’s competency to stand trial, and did not seek 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.
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 Constitution’s 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.