ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed a Howard County drug conviction Tuesday after finding that the defendant had not been properly informed before waiving his right to a trial by jury.
Keith Brown, 32, was convicted early last year of possession of phenacyclidine (PCP) with the intent to distribute, and sentenced to ten years imprisonment without parole.
Brown and his attorneys maintained that Brown did not understand the nature of a jury verdict.
At the trial, Brown’s attorney, public defender Stephen Harris, had asked him if he wished to waive his right “to be tried by 12 persons chosen at random.” Brown replied that he did.
In his opinion, Court of Special Appeals Judge William Wenner said that this exchange and a previous conversation Brown had with his attorney did not adequately inform Brown that the jury’s decision had to be unanimous.
Gary E. Bair, assistant attorney general and one of the prosecutors on the case, disagreed.
“There was enough in the record to show that he understood what was involved in a jury trial,” Bair said. “I think what this case illustrates is that there are differing opinions about what needs to be on the record.”
Court of Special Appeals Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., in a dissenting opinion, called it inappropriate to reverse the decision. Murphy argued that it was fair to assume that the defendant, represented by a lawyer, would have been informed about the requirement of a unanimous jury in obtaining a conviction.
Brown was a passenger in a van driven by a friend, Vincent Ernest, when they were stopped by Howard County police in September 1994. Ernest failed a sobriety test and was arrested. When police searched Ernest, they discovered a sandwich bag containing PCP.
A subsequent search of the van turned up several more bags and a glass jar containing 25.6 grams of the drug under the front passenger seat.
The van belonged to Brown’s father. Brown claims he did not know the vehicle was carrying PCP.
At the trial, the state called in Howard County Police Sgt. Kith Lessner as an expert in the packaging, selling and distribution of PCP. Lessner said what was found in the van was “a tremendous amount of PCP for anyone to be carrying around if they don’t intend to sell it. There is no way an individual can smoke this amount of PCP and still be with us.”
Brown may face another trial, if the Howard County state’s attorney chooses to prosecute again. L.C. Gross, the deputy state’s attorney, said officials will consider it once they have examined the appellate court’s opinion. -30-