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Maryland high court overturns sentence, calls judge’s comments unfair

“It is indisputable that the dismissive and disrespectful comments concerning Mr. Mainor’s mother, in combination with the judge’s other comments and actions, could cause a reasonable person to question the impartiality of the trial judge,” Judge Joseph M. Getty wrote for the Court of Appeals. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

A Wicomico County judge violated the due process right of a man convicted of assaulting an elderly woman by denying his request to have his mother testify and to prepare a mitigation report before sentencing, which occurred with the jury present at the judge’s request, Maryland’s top court unanimously ruled Wednesday.

The Court of Appeals took special exception to Wicomico County Circuit Court Judge W. Newton Jackson III’s statement before sentencing that Darrell Mainor’s working-class mother would have been in the courtroom rather than at her job if she cared about her son.

“(I)t is impossible for us to affirmatively say that the trial judge was operating with ill will or bias towards Mr. Mainor or his mother when making comments about Mr. Mainor’s mother’s absence, including that it was ‘obviously not important to her’ to be present and that ‘she could be here’ if she desired,” Judge Joseph M. Getty wrote for the high court.

“However, it is indisputable that the dismissive and disrespectful comments concerning Mr. Mainor’s mother, in combination with the judge’s other comments and actions, could cause a reasonable person to question the impartiality of the trial judge,” Getty added. “In sum, we conclude that Mr. Mainor was deprived of his due process right to a fair sentencing and that the trial judge abused his discretion.”

Jackson, whom the Court of Appeals did not mention by name, sentenced Mainor to 40 years in prison. In its 7-0 decision, the Court of Appeals ordered that Mainor be resentenced by a different judge.

The Maryland attorney general’s office declined to comment on the high court’s decision.

Neither Jackson nor Mainor’s appellate attorney, Assistant Maryland Public Defender Amy Brennan, immediately returned messages Thursday seeking comment on the high court’s decision.

Mainor was convicted for what the high court described as a “violent home invasion” in which the then-20-year-old demanded to know where the money was kept and struck 81-year-old Shirley Donohoe repeatedly in the face when she said she did not know. Donohoe, who was visiting a friend at her Salisbury home on that July 2018 day, suffered a broken nose and dental plate and was rendered unconscious, according to the high court’s opinion.

However, she was able to describe her assailant to the Salisbury police.

After DNA samples from the crime scene matched Mainor’s DNA profile, Donohoe was shown a photo array and said Mainor’s photo was the closest match to her attacker.

The jury found Mainor guilty of home invasion; first-, third- and fourth-degree burglary; first- and second-degree assault; and reckless endangerment after a two-day trial on July 16 and 17, 2019.

After polling the jury, Jackson said, “All right. We’ll go to sentencing,” according to the Court of Appeals opinion.

Jackson rejected Mainor’s trial attorney’s request for a delay to prepare a pre-sentence investigation report and to enable Mainor’s mother to request time off from work to testify.

The judge called the report unnecessary and the mother’s absence from the courtroom a sign that her son’s sentencing was unimportant to her, though she had missed work to attend the first day of trial. Jackson also said he opposed the requested postponement because “I think the jury is entitled to see the resolution of this case.”

Jackson did hear a brief statement from Mainor before handing down the sentence, which the intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld in an unreported opinion in November.

In ordering Mainor’s resentencing, the Court of Appeals said it was “deeply troubled” by Jackson’s desire that the jury be present at sentencing despite the prosecution’s lack of opposition to the defense’s request for a postponement.

“It is evident by the exchanges between Mr. Mainor’s counsel and the court that the trial judge was inclined to not merely permit, but indeed require, the jury to remain in the jury box for sentencing,” Getty wrote.

“The trial judge’s remark of the jury’s entitlement to see the case to resolution while contemporaneously asking the state its position on postponement provides sufficient evidence that the trial judge’s interest in the jury’s presence was a factor taken into consideration when declining to postpone the sentencing,” Getty added. “As such, the perceived entitlement of the jury to observe sentencing was an untenable ground on which the trial judge exercised discretion, further supporting our earlier determination that the trial court’s refusal to postpone Mr. Mainor’s sentencing was an abuse of discretion.”

The Court of Appeals issued its decision in Darrell Leonard Mainor v. State of Maryland, No. 55, September Term 2020.