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Hairstyle change can show consciousness of guilt, Md. high court says

“Cutting one’s hair, like fleeing from a crime scene or adopting a false name, may be admissible as evidence of consciousness of guilt …,” wrote Judge Michele D. Hotten for the high court. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

A suspect’s substantial alteration of his or her hairstyle after the crime could constitute destruction or concealment of evidence and indicate to the jury the defendant’s consciousness of guilt, Maryland’s top court unanimously ruled Thursday in upholding a man’s first-degree murder conviction.

In its 7-0 decision, the Court of Appeals rejected Robert Rainey’s argument through counsel that his dreadlocks were not evidence of the slaying and thus their removal in favor of a short hairdo could not be considered destruction or concealment of evidence.

The high court said a distinctive physical feature – such as hairstyle – can be evidence that ties a suspect to a crime through eyewitness testimony, which was the crux of the state’s case against Rainey. Thus, a jury could regard the defendant’s cutting of hair as destruction of evidence due to his or her consciousness of guilt.

In reaching its conclusion, the court applied a four-part test for inferring consciousness of guilt derived from its 2006 decision in Thompson v. State, which involved a defendant who fled from a crime scene: Does the defendant’s behavior suggest a desire to conceal? Does the desire to conceal suggest a consciousness of guilt? Does the consciousness of guilt relate to the crime? Does the consciousness of guilt suggest actual guilt of the crime charged?

“Cutting one’s hair, like fleeing from a crime scene or adopting a false name, may be admissible as evidence of consciousness of guilt as long as there is some evidence to support all four Thompson inferences connecting the change in appearance to actual guilt,” Judge Michele D. Hotten wrote for the high court.

“In the case at bar, there was some evidence to support all four Thompson inferences connecting the act of cutting off dreadlocks to actual guilt of murder because of eyewitness testimony that established the defendant wore dreadlocks at the time of the murder and regularly appeared in the area, but following the murder, had closely cut his hair and was only seen twice in the area by the eyewitness in a five-week period,” Hotten added.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the court’s decision.

Rainey’s appellate counsel, Assistant Maryland Public Defender Katherine P. Rasin, did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.

The prosecution’s case against Rainey included a witness regarding Dartania Tibbs’ shooting death in a Baltimore alley on May 2, 2017. Daphne Creighton testified at trial that she heard four shots and then saw a man in dreadlocks – which were “hanging loose” and “going back and forth” — standing over the victim on North Glover Street, according to court papers.

During the police investigation, Creighton picked a man with shoulder-length dreadlocks out of a photo array investigators showed her on May 8, 2017. Creighton later called police on June 6, 2017, when she saw the man – now with short hair – walking on a nearby street.

Responding officers arrested Rainey.

Prior to jury deliberations, the prosecution asked the presiding Baltimore City Circuit Court judge to instruct the jurors that destruction or concealment of evidence can be viewed as consciousness of guilt.

The requested instruction was based on the prosecution’s contention during trial that Rainey had cut off his dreadlocks after killing Tibbs to alter his appearance in case anybody had seen the slaying.

The judge granted the prosecution’s requested instruction, over the defense’s objection.

The jury found Rainey guilty of first-degree murder, use of a handgun in a violent crime and illegal possession of a gun by a convicted felon. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction in a reported decision Sept. 28, prompting Rainey to seek review by the high court.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Robert Rainey v. State of Maryland, No. 54, September Term 2021.