ANNAPOLIS – A Baltimore County man, convicted in a trial where he represented himself without a lawyer, will receive a new trial due to a Wednesday ruling from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
The court ruled that the circuit court that originally handled the case erred when it said Damon Lavon Robinson had waived his right to an attorney.
Arthur A. DeLano, the public defender who helped Robinson to appeal the circuit court’s decision, said the relatively short time period between arrest and trial likely caused the mistake.
“I think the court is anxious to handle the case expeditiously,” DeLano said. “I think sometimes this leads to mistakes when the defender comes in without counsel.”
The day before his trial, Robinson asked Baltimore County Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe to postpone it so he could find a lawyer.
According to court transcripts, Robinson told Howe explained that his mother would have paid an attorney he had already contacted, but she was hospitalized by a car accident.
Howe asked Robinson if the court commissioner had advised him of his right to an attorney and had him sign a paper informing him about the Office of the Public Defender. Robinson said the court commissioner had done both.
The judge denied his request for a delay and ruled that he had waived his right to an attorney. The trial proceeded the following day, and a jury convicted Robinson of car theft and related charges.
In its unreported opinion — meaning that the decision applies only to the case at hand, and sets no precedent for future cases — the Court of Special Appeals said a court must both allow the defendant to explain why he has not obtained a lawyer and determine whether the reason holds merit.
To conclude a defendant has given up his right to an attorney, the appeals court said, the trial court must find that he has neglected or refused to obtain a lawyer.
Given the short time between the arrest and trial, “the explanation that the mother of an indigent, incarcerated defendant was hit by a car and hospitalized before she could pay the lawyer she had already contacted, if believed, would be sufficient to excuse the defendant’s appearance without counsel,” the opinion read.
The court’s opinion also pointed out that if Robinson’s explanation was true, he would not have been able to make the deadline to apply for a public defender. The Office of the Public Defender requires applications 10 working days before trials.
DeLano agreed that 30 days between arrest and trial is a relatively short period of time. “I think if a person has an attorney, it is definitely a manageable period of time,” he said.
But DeLano said when a defendant is incarcerated or trying to obtain the funds for an attorney, having only a month to prepare for trial can be problematic. Devy Patterson Russell, the assistant attorney general who represented the state in the appeal, could not be reached for comment. -30-