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Md. high court weighs if spousal privilege applies to ‘sham’ marriages

Steve Lash//September 14, 2020

Md. high court weighs if spousal privilege applies to ‘sham’ marriages

By Steve Lash

//September 14, 2020

An accused killer’s jailhouse wedding created a “sham marriage” designed to prevent his newlywed wife from testifying against him at his upcoming murder trial, an attorney for Maryland said Monday in urging the state’s top court to reinstate obstruction of justice and witness tampering convictions against the groom.

Assistant Maryland Attorney General Brenda Gruss told the Court of Appeals a jury validly concluded that Darrayl Wilson married Kearra Bannister – the state’s star witness —  not out of love but with the “corrupt” intent to later invoke spousal privilege to block her incriminating testimony.

The intermediate Court of Special Appeals overturned Wilson’s tampering and obstruction convictions in July 2019, citing the “prevailing rule” among U.S. states that judges do not question why people got married in permitting them to invoke the privilege against having one spouse testify against the other.

Saying the Court of Special Appeals was wrong, Gruss said judges should defer to a jury’s beyond-a-reasonable-doubt finding that the “benign” act of marriage was entered into with the “evil or wicked purpose” of obstructing justice.

Jurors, having heard testimony and seen evidence, can look “behind the marriage” to determine if the groom’s motive was to prevent his bride from testifying, Gruss said.

In Wilson’s case, the jury properly considered many factors, including the wedding’s  proximity to his pending murder trial, Gruss said.

“When did they choose to get married?” Gruss added. “Right before the trial.”

The “innocent act” of marriage “can be obstructive,” Gruss said. “There should not be spousal privilege in the case of a sham marriage.”

But Wilson’s appellate attorney, Joseph B. Tetrault, countered that a couple’s motive for their lawful marriage may not be questioned by a court.

Juries cannot “weigh the value” or “judge the quality of marriage,” said Tetrault, a Baltimore attorney.

“It never should have gone to the jury,” he told the high court. “What they (Wilson and Bannister) did was allowed by law.”

Tetrault also rejected the state’s argument that the marriage was a sham, noting that Wilson and Bannister have two children together and had known each other for 10 years before they got married.

“The state just doesn’t like the result” that their valid marriage means that Bannister cannot be compelled to testify at Wilson’s murder trial due to spousal privilege, Tetrault said.

“That’s the price you pay for having a privilege” designed to prevent discord within a marriage and ensure the sanctity of private spousal communications, Tetrault added.

Judges on the seven-member high court asked few questions during the 50-minute argument session conducted via video conference to help stanch the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Judge Jonathan Biran wondered aloud whether the high court could uphold a defendant’s obstruction of justice conviction for marrying the state’s star witness while nevertheless permitting the defendant to assert spousal privilege at his murder trial.

The Court of Appeals is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in the case, State of Maryland v. Darrayl John Wilson, No. 64, September Term 2019.

According to court filings, Bannister informed police in 2014 that Wilson told her about three years earlier that he and Raymond Posey III shot and killed 29-year-old Crystal Anderson.

Bannister also told officers that she had seen the men selling Anderson’s possessions after Anderson’s August 2011 disappearance. Anderson’s body was found near Purse State Park in Nanjemoy in January 2012.

Wilson and Posey were subsequently indicted for murder.

While being held in the Charles County Detention Center, Wilson called several people between December 2016 and February 2017 to discuss his plan to marry Bannister to prevent her from testifying against him, the court filings state.

On Feb. 9, 2017, Wilson – whose criminal trial remains pending — married Bannister via a conference call among the jailed groom, the bride — who was on a break from work — and a pastor in New Jersey.

The state, after hearing of the nuptials, charged Wilson with obstruction of justice and witness tampering by corrupt means ahead of his upcoming murder case. A Charles County Circuit Court jury found Wilson guilty and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with all but three and a half years suspended.

He then appealed successfully to the Court of Special Appeals.

Posey pleaded no contest to robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, according to online court records at Maryland Judiciary Case Search.


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