ANNAPOLIS – In 1994, while trying a murder case, Baltimore City prosecutors wanted to use the confession of a Baltimore man who didn’t testify in his trial.
But defense lawyers for another man being tried for the same crime worried that the confession implicated their client.
So the prosecutors deleted the names of all accomplices, and the trial judge instructed the jury not to use the confession against the second man.
Both men were convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Stacey Williams. The accomplice who didn’t confess appealed — asserting that using the confession violated his sixth amendment constitutional right to confront a witness against him.
On Wednesday, the Court of Appeals ruled 5-2 that the man’s rights weren’t violated, reversing a December 1995 Court of Special Appeals decision.
The attorney general’s office said that the decision helps settle the issue of edited confessions involving multiple defendants in Maryland.
“It does come up with some degree of regularity with other defendants,” said Gary E. Bair, chief of the criminal appeals division of the state attorney general’s office. “This establishes a rule that can be used in in other cases.”
Arthur A. Delano Jr., the assistant public defender who represented Gray, wouldn’t comment on the court’s ruling.
The case stems from the November 1993 beating death of Williams by a group of six men in Baltimore. Police arrested Anthony Bell, who wrote a statement implicating himself, Kevin Domonic Gray and Jacquin Vanlandingham. Vanlandingham was fatally shot two days after Williams’ death. Bell and Gray were tried together.
According to Bell’s statement, an argument over money prompted the beating. Bell admitted hitting Williams and said that someone else kicked Williams.
Witnesses said that Vanlandingham dropped Williams head- first onto the sidewalk. But they gave conflicting statements as to whether Gray did the same and whether he even participated in the beating. Gray testified that he was down the street talking to his girlfriend on a pay phone during the beating.
Bell didn’t testify — which meant Gray’s defense attorneys couldn’t cross-examine him about his confession. And so Gray’s defense attorneys requested that the trial judge exclude Bell’s statement or try Bell and Gray separately.
The judge denied the defense motion, and told prosecutors to delete Gray’s and Vanlandingham’s names from the statement. During the trial, the words “deleted” and “deletion” replaced the names when the statement was read aloud to the jury. The jury also was given a copy of the statement with blank spaces replacing the names.
The defense argued that there was “a substantial risk” that the jury, despite the judge’s instruction to the contrary, would use Bell’s statement in determining Gray’s guilt.
Gray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. His 10-year prison term was suspended to seven years.
Last year, the state Court of Special Appeals agreed with his defense team and ordered a new trial. The court said that simply deleting the defendant’s name did not effectively make Bell’s statement nonincriminating to Gray. It added that there was no substantial other evidence that Gray would have been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Court of Appeals, in reversing that decision, ruled that although Vanlandingham was dead, the jury knew based on witnesses testimony that as many as six individuals were involved in the crime.
“One of the factors that was significant was that there were several other people [involved beyond Gray],” Bair said.
Furthermore, the court said in the opinion by Judge Robert L. Karwacki that there wasn’t overwhelming probability that the jury didn’t follow the judge’s instructions to disregard Bell’s confession in Gray’s case.
Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and Judge John C. Eldridge issued a three-line dissent, writing that they supported the reasoning of the Court of Special Appeals.
Bair said that prosecutors now will be able to use confessions from accomplices as long those statements don’t compel the jury to figure out who the other accomplices are. -30-