A unanimous Maryland high court Monday overturned the first-degree murder conviction and life sentence of a Baltimore man who allegedly stabbed his wife 55 times after discovering she had cheated on him.
The Court of Appeals said Amit Kumar was denied a fair trial in November 2019 because the judge had declined defense counsel’s request to ask prospective jurors if they could presume Kumar innocent and not hold it against him if he exercised his right not to testify.
The high court applied its Jan. 24, 2020, ruling in Kazadi v. State that trial judges, upon defense counsel’s request, must ask these questions as well as whether the prospective juror could require the state to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The court stated that Kazadi applies to cases that were “pending on direct appeal” on Jan. 24 and in which defense counsel had objected to the judge’s failure to ask those questions.
The intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld Kumar’s conviction last April, saying Kazadi did not apply to his case because his conviction predated the ruling and he had not yet filed an appeal as of Jan. 24, 2020.
But the Court of Appeals — in sending the case back for a new trial — ruled Monday that the lower court had read “pending on direct appeal” too narrowly.
Kazadi applies not only to cases that had been appealed as of Jan. 24 but to those, such as Kumar’s, that were in the trial court and capable of being appealed based on the argument that the judge had declined defense counsel’s request that the questions be asked, Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote for the high court.
“(C)oncluding otherwise would create a strange doughnut hole in Kazadi’s application in that the holding in Kazadi would apply to future cases and cases where appeals were actually pending when we issued the opinion in Kazadi but not to cases falling between those two categories – i.e., ones in which defendants had been tried but not yet noted appeals when Kazadi was issued,” Watts wrote. “We do not see any principled reason to deny relief under Kazadi simply because they noted appeals after the opinion was issued.”
With the Baltimore City Circuit Court jury impaneled, the prosecution presented its case that Kumar stabbed Ankita Verma to death in the apartment they shared over the bar where she worked in January 2019. Kumar had discovered the previous August that his wife was having an affair with Dilbag Singh, who co-owned the bar and was the couple’s landlord, the prosecution said.
Singh also discovered Verma’s lifeless body on Jan. 11, when he opened the apartment after she had failed to report to work or answered his telephone calls.
Kumar testified at trial that his wife wielded the knife and that, after initially backing off, he tried to get it out of her hand. He said the next thing he remembered was being scared and getting into a taxi, according to the Court of Special Appeals’ unreported opinion.
Kumar was at his brother’s house in Syracuse, New York, when he turned himself in to local law enforcement after hearing his wife was dead and that Baltimore police were looking for him.
The Maryland attorney general’s office, which argued the appeal, conceded in the high court that Kazadi applied to Kumar’s case and that the judge had failed to ask the required questions. However, the office pressed the high court to remand the case to the Court of Special Appeals for its determination of whether Kumar’s defense counsel’s objection to the judge’s failure to ask the questions was sufficient enough to have preserved the Kazadi issue for appeal.
The high court rejected the attorney general’s request, saying it was clear from the transcript of the jury selection process that defense counsel specifically objected to the judge’s failure and that the judge noted – but overruled — the objection.
The attorney general’s office declined to comment on the high court’s decision.
Following Kumar’s 2019 conviction, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a statement that “I am pleased that our prosecutors secured justice for Ankita’s family and that her killer will be held accountable for this vile and vicious crime.”
Mosby’s office did not immediately return a message Monday seeking comment on the Court of Appeals’ decision and any plans to retry Kumar.
Kumar’s appellate attorney, Assistant Maryland Public Defender Eva Shell, also did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the ruling.
The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Amit Kumar v. State of Maryland, No. 21, September Term 2021.