ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Court of Special Appeals, voting 2- 1, on Friday overturned the conviction of a Capitol Heights man sentenced to life in prison for a 1991 murder.
A Prince George’s County Circuit Court jury in 1993 found Patrick Orville Bethea guilty on several counts stemming from the robbery and shooting death in Capitol Heights of Nicholas West. Bethea was sentenced to life in prison plus 70 years for the crime.
Lawyers for Bethea appealed based on the issue of reasonable doubt and how it was explained during the trial.
In order for a jury to reach a guilty verdict, they must agree that a suspect is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” according to the U.S. Constitution. In criminal trials, the judge is responsible for telling the jury exactly what reasonable doubt means.
Spokesman Gary Baer of the Attorney General’s office said most judges follow a “pattern instruction” to criminal juries. The instructions say the evidence should “convince you of the truth … that you would be willing to act upon such belief without reservation.”
Bethea’s lawyers argued that during the trial, the jury was not instructed properly about reasonable doubt by presiding Judge Vincent J. Femia.
Court documents show Femia told the jury, in part, that reasonable doubt resembled a “state of mind … in deciding upon the more weighty matters in your own lives.”
Femia drew on comparisons to his own life, focusing on how he and his wife would go about buying a car. While he called his example “exaggerated,” he said, “All 12 of you must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of the elements of this crime. When 12 of you have so agreed and to that degree then can you vote for guilty.”
Assistant Attorney General Annabelle Lisic argued that those instructions did not influence the jury, which had heard a voluntary confession from Bethea during the trial.
But the Court of Special Appeals disagreed. Judges John J. Bishop Jr. and Arrie W. Davis, writing the majority opinion, ruled that Femia’s instructions were not clear enough. Also, the pair said the judge’s “personal illustrations” and “failure to inform jurors that their decision must be made without reservation” confused the jury about what reasonable doubt should be.
In the dissenting opinion, Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. stated that he disagreed with the interpretation of Femia’s instruction and “would affirm the judgments of conviction.”
Asked for comment on the ruling, Assistant Public Defender Martha Weisheit, who represented Bethea, said the judge’s instructions were “not an apt comparison about reasonable doubt.”
“There was too much detail [from the judge] about other examples,” Weisheit said.
Bethea, who was serving his sentence at the Maryland Penitentary in Baltimore, would most likely get a new trial if the decision stands, Weisheit said.
Officials from the Attorney General’s office said they had not received the opinion Friday and could not comment on it until they had. -30-