Supreme Court declines Frederick killer’s cold case appeal

Steve Lash//May 17, 2021

Supreme Court declines Frederick killer’s cold case appeal

By Steve Lash

//May 17, 2021

Judge Lynne A. Battaglia (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)
Judge Lynne A. Battaglia wrote the 3-to-0 Court of Special Appeals opinion in 2019 that it was not enough for the defense to argue simply that a delay had violated the defendant’s constitutional rights. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a convicted rapist and murderer’s argument that his constitutional right to due process was violated during the 20-year span between the brutal slaying of a teenage girl in Frederick and his indictment and trial.

Without comment, the justices let stand a Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruling that Lloyd Harris’ conviction in the 1996 killing of Stacy Lynn Hoffmaster was valid because he failed to show the delay in prosecution until 2016 was “a deliberate act by the government to gain a tactical advantage” and not merely the result of negligence or lack of diligence.

In February 2020, The Maryland Court of Appeals declined to hear Harris’ appeal from the intermediate court, prompting his unsuccessful bid for Supreme Court review.

The justices’ refusal to hear Harris’ appeal was simply that and sets no national legal precedent on the merits of constitutional challenges to cold case investigations and prosecutions. The appeal was docketed at the Supreme Court as Lloyd Harris v. State of Maryland, No. 20-101.

In his failed written request for Supreme Court review, Harris argued 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.

The constitutional right to due process requires courts to consider if the stated reason for the prosecution’s delay justified the harm done to the defendant’s ability to present a defense, wrote Harris’ lead attorney, Amir H. Ali, of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in Washington.

“For example, where the prosecution delays indicting the defendant for years and even decades, and over the course of those years it slowly destroys central interviews and evidence, it makes no difference to the defendant’s right to a fair trial whether the prosecution acted with an improper motive in mind,” Ali wrote. “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.”

Maryland’s unexplained 16-year hiatus in its cold case investigation of the 15-year-old’s death undermined any true opportunity Harris had to defend himself against the charges when they were finally brought, Ali wrote.

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, Ali added.

In a written response, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh told the justices in December that Harris’ defense was not unduly disadvantaged by the time lag between the teenager’s killing and Harris’ trial. Such a showing of “actual prejudice” to the defense is necessary to invalidate a trial that followed a cold case investigation and indictment, Frosh wrote in successfully urging the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal.

“Although the deferral of Harris’s indictment might have exposed him to the possibility of prejudice inherent in any extended delay, the only examples of purported prejudice he identified in support of his motion to dismiss were either factually mistaken or otherwise failed to establish the requisite actual prejudice because he could not demonstrate a viable, tangible connection between the missing evidence or the unavailable witness to the defense of the case,” Frosh wrote.

The reason for a prosecution’s delay — even if improper — is not constitutionally relevant without a showing that the time lag significantly harmed the defendant’s ability to mount a defense at the belated trial, Frosh added.

“The trial court’s summary treatment of the actual-prejudice prong and its comment that Harris as well as the state had, unsurprisingly, ‘suffered some prejudice’ due to the 19-year delay does not equate to a factual finding of substantial, actual prejudice,” Frosh wrote to the justices. “Rather, it is consistent with the (trial) court’s earlier observation that both parties would be affected by witnesses’ faded memories.”

Frosh’s filing was cosigned by Assistant Maryland Attorney General Carrie J. Williams, who served as the state’s counsel of record before the high court in the case.

In 2017, a Frederick County Circuit Court jury found Harris guilty of first-degree murder, first-degree rape and third-degree sexual offense of the teenager, whose body was found in a wooded area near a campsite shortly after the slaying.

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 reported 3-0 opinion in October 2019. “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.

Harris then mounted his unsuccessful appeals to Maryland’s top court and the Supreme Court.

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