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Court upholds UM murder conviction, OKs racist meme evidence

This combination of photos provided by the U.S. Army and the University of Maryland Police Department shows Richard Collins III, left, and Sean Urbanski. Urbanski, who is serving a life sentence for stabbing Collins to death at a bus stop at the University of Maryland, has had his appeal rejected by the state’s second-highest court. (U.S. Army, University of Maryland Police Department via AP, File)

A Maryland appeals court Wednesday upheld the first-degree murder conviction of a white man who stabbed to death a Black U.S. Army 2nd lieutenant at the University of Maryland five years ago, saying the jury was validly permitted to hear evidence that the killer belonged to a neo-Nazi group and stored racially offensive memes on his cellphone.

The Court of Special Appeals rejected Sean Urbanski’s arguments through counsel that the introduction into evidence of his membership and memes violated his constitutional right to free speech and inflamed the jury in violation of his right to due process.

In its reported 3-0 decision, the intermediate appellate court said the evidence was relevant to the state’s theory of why Urbanski killed Richard Collins III, a 23-year-old Bowie State University student, at a bus stop on UM’s College Park campus on May 20, 2017.

“Because appellant (Urbanski) was charged with first-degree murder, the state had to prove that the killing had been a willful, deliberate, and premeditated intent to kill the victim, and that he committed some overt act toward that end,” Judge Michael W. Reed wrote for the court.

“Memes depicting violence against Black people constituted relevant evidence that was probative of appellant’s intent to violently harm Lt. Collins,” Reed added. “Thus, this court holds that the uncontested evidence was admissible to prove motive for first-degree murder and does not violate the appellant’s First Amendment rights.”

The court added that the “non-racially charged evidence” of Urbanski’s guilt was so overwhelming that the jurors’ disgust regarding his membership and memes had no effect on their verdict. This evidence included two eyewitnesses, Collins’ blood on the knife police found on Urbanski and surveillance footage of the slaying, the appeals court said.

Urbanski is serving a life sentence but with the possibility of parole.

His appellate attorneys, John M. McKenna and Michael E. Lawlor, did not immediately return telephone messages Thursday seeking comment on the court’s decision and any plans to seek review by the Court of Appeals.

McKenna and Lawlor are with Brennan McKenna & Lawlor Chtd. in Greenbelt.

Prince George’s County prosecutors had also charged Urbanski with a hate crime in the slaying after finding evidence he belonged to a white supremacist Facebook group called “Alt-Reich Nation and the cellphone memes depicting violence against Blacks.

But Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Lawrence V. Hill Jr. dismissed the hate crime charge, saying prosecutors had not proved the slaying was motivated solely by Urbanski’s animus toward Collins’ race, as then required by law.

The General Assembly subsequently eased the prosecution’s burden in hate crime cases by requiring the state to prove – still beyond a reasonable doubt – that the criminal act was motivated not solely but “in substantial part” by the victim’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability.

The amended statute, which went into effect in 2020, has been dubbed “2nd Lt. Richard Collins III’s Law.”

Reed was joined in the opinion by Judge Stuart R. Berger.

Judge Kevin F. Arthur wrote a concurring opinion in which he agreed that Hill did not abuse his discretion in admitting Urbanski’s membership and meme into evidence but expressed concern with the admission.

“Had I been called upon to make those same decisions, I would have concluded that the probative value of the racist memes and of Urbanski’s membership in a neo-Nazi organization was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, in a case that now involved only a charge of murder” after the hate-crime allegation was dismissed, Arthur wrote.

“I am concerned that the jury may have convicted Urbanski of first-degree murder because he is a racist, and not because the state proved the element of premeditation beyond a reasonable doubt,” Arthur added. “(But) I cannot see an abuse of discretion in this case. I see difficult decisions by a conscientious trial judge.”

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Sean Urbanski v. State of Maryland, No. 1318 September Term 2020.