A unanimous Maryland high court has upheld a man’s first-degree murder conviction in the killing of two Montgomery County teenagers on the eve of their high school graduation, saying the prosecution’s failure to disclose the investigators’ interview with a witness’s parents had no effect on the guilty verdict.
The Court of Appeals rejected Jose Canales-Yanez’s argument though counsel that the interview – if disclosed to the defense — would have undermined the witness’s credibility at trial and changed his courtroom strategy, likely leading to his acquittal.
In its 7-0 decision last week, the high court said the interview with the parents was not “material” to the case due to the “overwhelming” evidence that Canales-Yanez shot Northwest High School seniors Artem Zibarov, 18, and Shadi Najjar, 17, as they sat in a car in a Montgomery Village cul-de-sac on the night of June 5, 2017.
During the undisclosed interview, the investigators told Victoria Kuria’s mother and stepfather she would be charged with having lied to the police during her earlier statement to officers unless she spoke with them again, according to Canales-Yanez’s counsel. Kuria was subsequently interviewed again by investigators and implicated Canales-Yanez in the slaying, the defense said.
Presumably, Kuria’s parents – identified in the court’s decision as the Bells — conveyed to her the officers’ threat prior to her second interview, the defense added.
If armed with that information, the defense said it would have opted for a jury trial rather than have the verdict rendered by a judge.
But the high court held that the defense’s knowledge of the parents’ interview would not have altered the guilty verdict.
“Although petitioner (Canales-Yanez) has asked this court to draw inferences about what the Bells may have conveyed to Ms. Kuria following their interview with the police, and then to infer how that may have affected Ms. Kuria’s testimony, this is simply insufficient to satisfy his burdens of production and persuasion in order to establish his entitlement to the relief he seeks,” a new trial, Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera wrote for the Court of Appeals.
The court’s decision addressed the breadth of the prosecution’s constitutional obligation to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland.
Such evidence can include information that raises questions about, or “impeaches,” a witness’s credibility if its disclosure would create “a reasonable probability that it would have affected the verdict,” which was not the case with Canales-Yanez, the Court of Appeals said.
“(W)e hold that the undisclosed evidence of the interview with the Bells was not material to petitioner’s case,” Barbera wrote.
“It was almost entirely cumulative of defense counsel’s theory at trial that Ms. Kuria was biased towards the prosecution,” Barbera added. “Moreover, in light of the overwhelming other independent evidence of petitioner’s guilt, Ms. Kuria’s testimony was not central to the state’s case against petitioner, and it was not a close case.”
The high court declined to address defense’s argument that disclosure would have prompted a jury trial, stating that because Canales-Yanez’s post-trial counsel “has devoted little to no written or oral argument on this hypothetical advice, we can detect no reason to entertain the issue.”
Appellate attorney Nancy S. Forster, who represented Canales-Yanez before the high court, stated via email that she was “disappointed” that the Court of Appeals “did not address the fact that trial counsel signed an affidavit saying she would have requested a jury trial had she known of the interview.”
Forster, a Towson attorney, added that Canales-Yanez will not seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Maryland Office of Attorney General declined to comment on the Court of Appeals’ decision.
According to the prosecution, Najjar and Zibarov were lured to the cul-de-sac in the belief they were selling extra tickets to the June 6 graduation. Instead, Canales-Yanez and three other men shot them.
The prosecution said Najjar was the primary target in a revenge killing for his having allegedly stolen drugs recently from Canales-Yanez’s wife and then driving over her feet as he escaped. Zibarov was just in the wrong car at the wrong time, prosecutors said.
In addition to murder, Canales-Yanez was found guilty by Montgomery County Circuit Judge David A. Boynton of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Canales-Yanez’s co-conspirators — Roger Garcia, Rony Galicia and Edgar Garcia-Gaona — were found guilty of murder in separate trials and were not parties to the high court appeal.
The investigators’ undisclosed interview with the Bells occurred after Kuria had told the police she was at the home of Garcia, her boyfriend, shortly before the killings. A friend of Garcia and Garcia’s father were also in the house, Kuria said in the interview disclosed to the defense.
The investigators, believing Kuria was untruthful, then interviewed the mother, who told them Kuria had told her that she knew nothing of the killings. The investigators then told the mother and stepfather that they would not charge Kuria with lying to the police if she told them the truth when they interviewed her again.
In that subsequent interview, Kuria told the investigators that the crowd at Garcia’s house was much larger and included Canales-Yanez and Galicia. She also said she saw a map of where the killings occurred later that evening.
Kuria reiterated that statement in her testimony at Canales-Yanez’s trial, at which the defense had no knowledge of the investigators’ interview with the parents. The state subsequently told the defense of the interview, according to the high court’s decision.
The intermediate Court of Special Appeals last year upheld Canales-Yanez’s conviction, prompting him to seek review by the high court.
The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Jose Canales-Yanez v. State of Maryland, No. 11, September Term 2020.