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Convicted killer seeks high court review, claims racial bias in appellate opinion

Racially charged comments so permeated a recently reported Maryland appeals court opinion that a convicted killer deserves a new hearing before an impartial appellate body, the Black convict’s attorney has told the state’s top court.

In its controversial opinion, the intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld Terrance Belton’s voluntary-manslaughter conviction, stating that the Black southwest Baltimore neighborhood where he killed Edward Calloway “was not the Hallmark Hall of Fame.” The court also likened Belton and his mother to monsters from the epic poem “Beowulf” and said their relationship was far removed from the idyllic scene depicted in James Whistler’s painting of his mother.

In Belton’s bid for high court review, his lawyer told the Court of Appeals that the racial tropes drawn in the opinion and comparisons made to a genteel white society reveal a bias that draws into question the appellate court’s impartiality.

The biased appellate court went on to rule that the trial judge’s exclusion of Calloway’s threatening statement “this is my block” before Belton killed him was harmless to his claim of self-defense, Assistant Maryland Public Defender Katherine P. Rasin wrote.

“This case presents this Court (of Appeals) with an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to fight bias and the appearance of bias, including racial bias, in the judiciary and ensure that both participants in the criminal justice system and citizens of all of the state’s communities are treated with dignity,” Rasin added in the petition for review filed March 21. “This case presents another issue of first impression that would allow this court to further its anti-racist objectives: Should well-settled law on a criminal defendant’s right to a judge that is fair and impartial and has the appearance of being fair and impartial apply to appellate proceedings.”

Rasin stated that the Court of Special Appeals’ decision to issue the opinion as “reported” – and thereby citable as precedent – only deepens the bias and calls out for the decision to be overturned.

“Appellate judges are not immune to the same appearances of partiality that affect other judges and the effect on the involved citizen is no less when perceived bias comes from appellate judges,” Rasin wrote. “While the appearance of bias at all levels affects both the parties before the court and the community at large, bias and/or the appearance of bias in a reported appellate decision has the additional effect of forever entrenching that prejudice in our jurisprudence.”

Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr., a retired jurist sitting by special assignment, wrote the opinion on behalf of a three-judge panel of the Court of Special Appeals. He was joined in the opinion by Judges Andrea M. Leahy and Melanie Shaw Geter.

The decision to issue the opinion as reported on Dec. 28 was made during a private conference of the 15-member Court of Special Appeals.

The Maryland attorney general’s office is expected to respond soon to Belton’s request for Court of Appeals review. The petition for review is captioned at the high court as Terrance Belton v. State of Maryland, Petition Docket 31, September Term 2022.

Court of Special Appeals Chief Judge Matthew Fader and the three judges declined to comment on the petition through Maryland Judiciary spokesperson Bradley Tanner, who stated via email that “judges cannot comment on opinions or pending cases.”

According to trial testimony, Calloway and Belton’s mother were brawling on the morning of Dec. 6, 2018, when Belton was told his mother was being physically assaulted. Belton rushed to the scene, drew his gun and shot Calloway five times because of what Belton said was fear that Calloway would shoot first.

Though Belton was charged with second-degree murder, the Baltimore City Circuit Court jury found him guilty of the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter — a verdict the Court of Special Appeals said he should willingly accept because of the weakness of his argument that he killed Calloway out of reasonable fear for his and his mother’s lives.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld Belton’s conviction despite agreeing with his contention through counsel that the trial judge erroneously barred, as impermissible hearsay, testimony that Calloway had threateningly said to him and his mother “this is my block” shortly before the slaying.

The appellate court noted that hearsay is defined as an out-of-court statement sought to be introduced at trial for the truth of the matter asserted.

“We agree with the son that the assertion was not hearsay,” Moylan wrote. “It was certainly not offered for the truth of the thing asserted, to wit, that Calloway was licensed, presumably by the city of Baltimore, to exercise a monopolistic privilege to sell contraband narcotics at the intersection of South Monroe Street and McHenry Street.”

Though excluded in error, the statement’s admission would have had no effect on the jury’s verdict in light of the many prior threats and evidence that the mother was an active participant in the hostile communications with Calloway, the Court of Special Appeals held.

The court’s opinion, however, went beyond the hearsay issue to imply that the Baltimore neighborhood is far removed from the safe, largely white communities in Hallmark movies; to liken Belton and his mother, Shakiea Worsley, to “Beowulf” monsters Grendel and Grendel’s mother; and to state that Worsley was not “Whistler’s Mother,” a saintly painting of an older white woman sitting on a chair, Rasin wrote in Belton’s pending petition for Court of Appeals review.

“The intermediate court’s opinion contains derogatory contrasts of Baltimore city to other locales and comparisons with distinctive racial overtones of characters from works of literature and fine art to the participants in this case,” Rasin added. “The court’s contrasting of Worsley and Whistler’s Mother, positioned as two opposing forces, worthy and unworthy, evokes dangerous white-black/good-evil tropes that seep into the  subconscious – and in this case the state’s jurisprudence – and engender real harm.”

Worsley was found guilty in the same Baltimore trial and by the same jury of being an accessory to the killing after the fact. The Court of Special Appeals upheld Worsley’s conviction, saying she had not preserved for appeal her argument that the evidence was insufficient to prove her guilt.

Worsley is not a party to her son’s request for high court review.

The Court of Special Appeals issued its controversial opinion in the joint cases Terrence (sic) Belton v. State of Maryland and Shakiea Worsley v. State of Maryland, Nos. 720 and 290, September Term 2020.