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Md. high court will review killer’s claim of racial bias in Belton case

Maryland’s top court will consider whether alleged racially charged comments so permeated a recently reported appeals court opinion that a convicted killer, who is Black, deserves a new hearing before an impartial appellate body.

The Court of Appeals last week agreed to hear Terrance Belton’s claim that the racial tropes drawn in the Court of Special Appeals’ opinion and comparisons made to a genteel white society revealed a bias that draws into question that court’s impartiality in upholding his voluntary-manslaughter conviction.

In its controversial opinion, the Court of Special Appeals stated that the Black southwest Baltimore neighborhood where Belton 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 successful petition for high court review, attorney Katherine P. Rasin said the bias exhibited in the Court of Special Appeals opinion raises questions about whether the decision was fair. The appellate court ruled that the trial judge’s exclusion of Calloway’s threatening statement “this is my block” was a harmless error that did not undermine Belton’s claim of self-defense.

In the state’s unsuccessful request that review be denied, Assistant Maryland Attorney General Daniel J. Jawor called the allegedly biased “literary and artistic references” in the Court of Special Appeals opinion irrelevant to the court’s legitimate finding of harmlessness.

The Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments in Belton’s appeal in September and expected to render its decision by Aug. 31, 2023. The case is docketed at the high court as Terrance Belton v. State of Maryland, No. 8 September Term 2022.

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.

A three-judge panel of 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,” Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr. 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.

Moylan, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment, was joined in the opinion by Judges Andrea M. Leahy and Melanie Shaw Geter.

In Belton’s Court of Appeals petition, Rasin said the opinion 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.

“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,” wrote Rasin, an assistant Maryland public defender. “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.”

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.”

In response to Belton’s petition, Jawor, of the attorney general’s office, stated that the Court of Special Appeals’ finding of harmless error was sound as was the opinion.

“Regarding the challenged dicta, the state of course does not deny the importance of a defendant’s right to a fair and impartial judge or the extension of that right to appellate proceedings,” Jawor wrote. “Viewing the opinion’s actual language in context, however, the intermediate court could soundly determine in its discretion that a reasonable person, understanding all the relevant facts and law, would not conclude that the challenged language in the opinion created an appearance of partiality so as to compel the intermediate court to recall and reconsider the opinion.”

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 appeal to the high court.

The Court of Special Appeals issued its controversial opinion last year 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.