ANNAPOLIS – A Prince George’s County man had his drug conviction overturned Tuesday by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, in part because of surprise testimony from a police officer.
Vincent William Ross should be given a new trial, the court said in a 3-0 ruling, in light of a police statement that Ross’ co-defendant, Leo Brisbane, didn’t want “his friend to take the fall” on drug charges.
Ross and Brisbane, who were tried together, were convicted in Prince George’s County Circuit Court after a 1994 incident when the car they were riding in was stopped in Fairmount Heights.
Police found a handgun, nearly seven grams of crack cocaine worth $1,400 and a crack pipe in the car. Ross was riding in the back of the car, driven by Brisbane.
Brisbane originally made a statement to police that only he was responsible for the drugs, but recanted before the trial.
During the trial, Officer Joseph McCann, who had stopped the car, was asked to testify about Brisbane’s state of mind while giving the statement.
According to court documents, McCann said that Brisbane’s “main concern was that he wanted to take the fall for this and that his friend — he didn’t want his friend to take the fall.”
McCann’s statement surprised both prosecutors and defense lawyers, who had not heard it during pre-trial hearings. It was admitted as evidence after a series of conferences between the lawyers and Judge Audrey E. Melbourne. Melbourne also rejected a defense motion for a mistrial.
The Court of Special Appeals ruled that the central question of the appeal was the meaning of the phrase “take the fall.” They rejected prosecutor’s claims that Brisbane wanted to admit his guilt and avoid Ross’ being falsely accused.
Instead, Judges Charles Moylan, Paul Alpert and Rosalyn Bell said there could be a number of interpretations.
“In view of the meaning we take from the language…we are certainly not persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury did not take the same meaning from that language,” they wrote.
“We believe a far more common and accepted meaning of the phrase is that a person assumes a guilt that is not his so that a guilty beneficiary may go free, or assumes all of the guilt that is only partially his so that a partially guilty beneficiary may go free.”
None of the lawyers in the case was available for comment. A Prince George’s County Police Department official said McCann was unavailable for comment. -30-