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Baltimore killer urges justices to hear ineffective-assistance claim

The Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, June 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, June 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

A convicted murderer has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review and overturn his conviction because his attorney failed to request a jury instruction on the defense of alibi after four people testified at trial that he was most likely not at the 2003 Baltimore-area slaying.

Had it been requested, the alibi jury instruction would have ensured Christopher Mann a fair trial in the killing of Ricky Prince, Mann’s appellate attorney argued in his petition for Supreme Court review.

Mann is appealing the Maryland high court’s December decision that the absence of a jury instruction did not affect the guilty verdict for first-degree felony murder. The alibi witnesses’ testimony did not eliminate the possibility that Mann was at the murder scene, and the trial judge’s instruction that the state must prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt obviated the need for a special jury instruction on alibi, the Court of Appeals said in its 5-2 ruling.

In requesting Supreme Court review, Mann’s attorney stated that having alibi witnesses helps the defense, but only if the judge specifically tells the jury that the defendant does not have to prove what they say is true but that the state must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“There is a strong risk that a jury will assume that a criminal defendant bears some burden of proof by introducing alibi evidence, even if no one uses the word ‘alibi,’” attorney William L. Welch III wrote to the high court last month.

“When the court gives the jury an alibi instruction, it addresses these concerns,” added Welch, a Columbia attorney. “With an alibi instruction to help the jury weigh credibility and the evidence, a jury could have determined that Mr. Prince was killed during the times accounted for by the alibi witnesses. Without that, even one juror could have incorrectly shifted the burden to the defense to prove what even one of the alibi witnesses said, and that is a reasonable probability that the verdict was affected.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office last week waived its right to respond to Mann’s request for Supreme Court review unless the justices specifically request a response. The high court has not said when it will vote on whether justices will hear Mann’s appeal.

The case is docketed at the Supreme Court as Christopher Mann v. State of Maryland, No. 19-8833.

Mann’s appeal is reminiscent of “Serial” podcast subject Adnan Syed’s ill-fated argument that his trial attorney’s failure to investigate an alibi witness violated his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. The Court of Appeals had similarly rejected Syed’s appeal of his conviction for the first-degree murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee 21 years ago in Maryland.

The Supreme Court let Syed’s conviction stand without comment in November.

In Mann’s case, his 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. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.

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.”

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 Court of Appeals rendered its decision in State of Maryland v. Christopher Mann, No. 29, September Term 2019.

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