By Amanda Burdette
ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Court of Appeals, splitting 4-3, ruled Tuesday that evidence of prior child abuse is admissible in cases against allegedly abusive parents.
The court reversed a decision by the Court of Special Appeals to grant a Howard County father separate trials on each of five counts of child abuse.
In an opinion written by Judge Howard S. Chasanow, the four judges observed that, “when a parent uses severe corporal punishment, often the only way to determine whether the punishment is a non-criminal act of discipline that was unintentionally harsh or whether it constitutes the felony of child abuse is to look at the parent’s history of disciplining the child.”
James W. Taylor was charged in June 1994 with abuse, assault and battery of his stepson Keith Carmichael in five instances. The trial court consolidated the separate cases into one.
In mid-February 1995, Taylor was found guilty on two counts of child abuse and two counts of battery and sentenced to two concurrent 15-year prison terms.
Taylor appealed to the Court of Special Appeals and asked for five separate trials, claiming that combining the cases prejudiced the jury against him. The intermediate court agreed, and ordered separate trials. The State of Maryland then took the case to the highest court.
Taylor was charged with twice punching his stepson in the jaw, whipping him across the shoulders with an electric cord, poking him in the chest with a wooden stick and stabbing him in the head with a fork. He was convicted in connection with the electrical cord beating and one instance of punching, but acquitted on the other charges. The incidents, between March and May 1994, left three scars on Keith’s body.
Assistant Attorney General Annabelle L. Lisic, in the brief for the state, argued that “each act was highly relevant to the issue of Taylor’s intent when he struck his stepson.”
She continued, “The State was entitled to dispel any notion that Taylor’s individual acts were within the limits of reasonable parenting or that any one of the acts was a mistake.” To do this, the brief said, prosecutors need to provide context for the abusive acts, which they did with the other counts of abuse.
But Assistant Public Defender Margaret L. Lanier, who represented Taylor, said in her brief, “The court of Special Appeals was exactly correct in recognizing the error and reversing the judgment.”
Maryland law of “joinder and severance,” which governs when to try cases together and when to separate them, requires that evidence of each alleged act of child abuse be admissible in the separate prosecution of all the others. If that is not the case, Lanier wrote, “severance is required as a matter of law.”
In Taylor’s cases, she argued in the brief, “there is no causal connection; they are simply other, successive incidents of battering the same child.”
But the Court of Appeals majority agreed with Lisic, and let stand the decision of the Howard County Circuit Court. Taylor was ordered to pay the costs of the appeal.
Chief Judge Robert Bell, now-retired Judge Robert L. Karwacki and Judge John C. Eldridge dissented, arguing that the majority had misapplied the law of joinder and severance.
No lawyers in the case were available for comment. -30-