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Md. Supreme Court disavows lower court opinion that likened Black defendant to monster in ‘Beowulf’

Madeleine O'Neill//May 31, 2023

Md. Supreme Court disavows lower court opinion that likened Black defendant to monster in ‘Beowulf’

By Madeleine O'Neill

//May 31, 2023

In a carefully worded opinion, Maryland’s Supreme Court on Wednesday disavowed language in a lower court decision that suggested implicit bias against a Black defendant and his mother, though the high court declined to decide whether the opinion violated the man’s due process rights.

The Appellate Court decision in question compared the defendant and his mother to monsters from the epic poem “Beowulf” and said their relationship was unlike those represented in famous artworks depicting white mothers and grandmothers.

In response, four of the Maryland Supreme Court’s seven justices signed onto a series of “concerns about the Appellate Court’s exercise of discretion in choosing the language of its opinion in this case.”

“We highlight two problems,” Justice Jonathan Biran wrote: “literary analogies and other comparisons that could be interpreted as evoking racial stereotypes or suggesting that they are the product of implicit bias; and the opinion’s overall tone.”

First, though, Biran noted that appellate judges have broad discretion to write opinions as they see fit. He also emphasized that the high court’s opinion is not meant to impugn the author of the Appellate Court opinion, Senior Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr., or to suggest that he and the other judges who signed onto the opinion made their decision based on any “impermissible considerations, including race.”

Moylan, who served on the intermediate appeals court from 1970 until 2000 and continues to work as a senior judge, is known for his use of literary references and flowery language in opinions.

Still, Biran wrote, comparing defendant Terrance Belton and his mother to literary monsters was inappropriate, “particularly when doing so might perpetuate racist stereotypes of African American people as violent and sub-human.”

The appeal stems from the 2018 killing of Edward Calloway in Baltimore’s Carrollton Ridge neighborhood, which Belton claimed was self-defense.

According to trial testimony, Calloway and Belton’s mother began fighting on the morning of Dec. 6, 2018, when Belton learned his mother was being 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.

Belton was charged with second-degree murder but a Baltimore City Circuit Court jury found him guilty of the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter.

In the Appellate Court’s opinion, Moylan wrote that the largely Black southwest Baltimore neighborhood where the shooting took place was “not the Hallmark Hall of Fame.”

The judge also unfavorably compared Belton’s mother to the demure white women portrayed in James Whistler and Norman Rockwell paintings.

“It was not Whistler’s Mother selling drugs on South Monroe Street,” Moylan wrote, referring to a famous painting depicting the artist’s mother.

Biran wrote that these comparisons “call to mind narratives about African American women as angry and less than virtuous, thereby suggesting that (Belton’s mother) did not deserve the sympathy that might naturally be extended to the more elderly White mothers and grandmothers depicted (in those artworks).”

The Supreme Court declined to vacate the lower court’s opinion in full because of these comparisons, as Assistant Maryland Public Defender Katherine P. Rasin requested in representing Belton.

The high court also declined to determine whether the language in the opinion violated Belton’s due process rights because it reversed the Appellate Court and granted Belton a new trial on his voluntary manslaughter conviction.

But the Supreme Court acknowledged that a defendant’s due process rights could be violated if an appeals court’s opinion “could cause a reasonable person to question the participating judges’ impartiality or otherwise reasonably suggests bias on the part of the court.”

The majority also disavowed the lower court opinion’s extensive dicta, “including its literary analogies,” along with portions of the opinion about self-defense that are based on disputed or incorrect facts.

“Judges must vigilantly guard both their actual impartiality and their appearance of impartiality,” Biran wrote.

“In the appellate context, this requires careful contemplation of how the language of our opinions may be taken, including how this country’s tortured racial history may make otherwise benign literary and artistic references land on modern ears.”

Three justices concurred with the decision but declined to join the portion of the Supreme Court opinion that examined the language used in the Appellate Court opinion.

Justice Steven B. Gould wrote in his concurring opinion that the high court should have exercised discretion instead of discussing the issue of implicit bias in dicta.

“Mr. Belton raises important issues concerning race and gender that have been, and
will continue to be, discussed and debated in social, political, and academic circles, as they should be,” Gould wrote. “If confronting these issues were necessary to resolve the case before us, I would do so without reluctance or hesitance.

“Unless necessary to resolve an issue before us, this Court is not in the business of critiquing the language and tone of our colleagues’ judicial opinions, nor should we be.”

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office, which represented the state in the appeal, declined to comment.

Rasin, Belton’s lawyer and a supervising attorney in the Appellate Division of the Office of the Public Defender, credited the Supreme Court for acknowledging that implicit bias can lead to a due process violation.

“This is the first time that a high court has recognized that implicit bias can affect appellate opinions, which will provide meaningful guidance for both Maryland and other jurisdictions,” Rasin said.

The Daily Record also requested a comment from Moylan. A spokeswoman for the Maryland judiciary declined.

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