In an appeal pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, criminal defense attorneys from outside the state have assailed Maryland’s “rigid” rule enabling prosecutors to prosecute cold cases so long as the prosecution’s delay in securing an indictment was not designed to give the state a tactical advantage over the defendant.
The lawyers from Maine, Vermont and Washington state are urging the high court to review and overturn Lloyd Harris’ rape and murder conviction, saying his constitutional right to due process was violated during the 20-year span between the brutal 1996 slaying of a teenage girl in Frederick and his indictment and trial.
In papers filed with the justices, the attorneys criticized the Maryland Court of Special Appeals’ reported – and thus precedential — decision that Harris’ conviction was valid because he failed to show that the delay in his prosecution was deliberate and not merely the result of the state’s negligence or lack of diligence.
Maryland’s unexplained 16-year hiatus in its cold case investigation of Stacy Lynn Hoffmaster’s death undermined any true opportunity Harris had to defend himself against the charges when they were finally brought, the lawyers told the high court.
During those years, for example, an alternative suspect and the state’s forensic analyst had died, recordings of police interviews were lost or destroyed, multiple witnesses were unavailable and key evidence had been destroyed, the attorneys added in their brief supporting Harris’ request for Supreme Court review.
Criminal lawyers “know well that mounting a defense many years, or as in this case, decades, after the alleged offense or trying to prove a prosecutor’s subjective mindset are often bankrupt endeavors,” stated the attorneys with the Maine, Vermont or Washington associations of criminal defense lawyers.
“Yet, under the decision below defendants and their counsel are placed in an untenable position: satisfy the nearly insurmountable task of proving a prosecutor’s improper motives, or defend against criminal charges where the hands of time have destroyed exculpatory evidence,” they added in their brief filed last week. “Due process demands more, and this (Supreme) Court should grant review.”
Supreme Court resolution is also needed because of the disparity in the way state and federal courts handle challenges to cold case prosecutions, the attorneys added.
Vermont, like Maryland, looks solely to the prosecutor’s motives in assessing whether the delay was reasonable, while Maine and Washington focus more on the consequences to the defendant in each case, the attorneys wrote. They added that the U.S. District Court in Maine has also adopted the more stringent Maryland approach.
“Review is needed to resolve the conflict because due process should not depend on the state where a defendant is charged or whether the delay involved state versus federal indictments,” wrote R. Stanton Jones, the attorneys’ lead counsel before the Supreme Court.
Jones is an attorney at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP in Washington, D.C.
Harris, in his petition for high court review, stated through counsel that requiring a defendant to show the delay in prosecution was intentional “violates traditional due process principles,” which focus on ensuring the defendant received a fair trial and not if the prosecution had an improper motive.
“Put more simply, the improper-motive requirement places a daunting, almost insurmountable, burden on the accused and application of so stringent a standard would force a result we would consider unconstitutional, unwarranted, and unfair,” wrote Amir H. Ali, Harris’ lead attorney at the high court.
Ali is with the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in Washington, D.C.
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh’s reply to Harris’ petition for review is due at the Supreme Court Dec. 4. The justices have not said when they will vote on Harris’ request.
The case is docketed at the Supreme Court as Lloyd Harris v. State of Maryland, No. 20-101.
A Frederick County Circuit Court jury found Harris guilty in 2017 of first-degree murder, first-degree rape and third-degree sexual offense following his indictment the previous year. He was sentenced in 2018 to life in prison.
Harris appealed his conviction to the intermediate Court of Special Appeals on due process grounds, saying two key defense witnesses died during the unexplained delay: another possible suspect and a forensic analyst who had examined the victim’s blanket.
But the Court of Special Appeals said it was not enough for the defense merely to argue it was prejudiced by the delay.
“In the present case, Harris, on appeal, does not argue that the state purposefully delayed his indictment to gain a tactical advantage over him; he does contend, however, that the abundance of prejudice resulting from the delay was sufficient to require dismissal,” Judge Lynne A. Battaglia wrote in the appellate court’s 3-0 opinion last October. “His assertion, however, fails based upon his inability to demonstrate that the state deferred to seek the indictment to gain a tactical advantage, as required by case law.”
Judges Stuart R. Berger and Andrea M. Leahy joined Battaglia, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment. The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Lloyd Harris v. State of Maryland, No. 2298, September Term 2017.
In February, Maryland’s top court — the Court of Appeals — declined without comment Harris’ request that it hear his appeal. Harris then sought review by the Supreme Court.