ANNAPOLIS – A Prince George’s County man’s rape conviction is invalid because his lawyer didn’t tell him that juries must reach their decisions unanimously, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled Friday.
In an opinion for the state’s second highest court, Judge Ellen L. Hollander wrote that Wilbur Bell wasn’t “shown on the record to know of the unanimity requirement,” and therefore could not knowingly waive his right to a jury trial.
The ruling mostly clarifies how much a lawyer needs to explain to his client about the client’s rights, said Bell’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Daniel H. Weiss.
Bell’s trial lawyer, R. William Hale, “didn’t inform [Bell] of all the facets of a jury trial,” which isn’t uncommon in such situations, Weiss said.
The decision “doesn’t really set any new precedent,” Weiss said, except to ensure that lawyers in Maryland’s courts won’t make assumptions about the extent of their client’s legal knowledge.
Bell was convicted in 1996 of crimes including the second degree rape and assault and battery of a former girlfriend with whom he had one pre-teen daughter, court briefs said.
When Bell declined his right to a jury trial, both his trial lawyer and Circuit Court Judge Michele D. Hotten asked him if he understood what he was giving up, to which Bell said yes, court briefs said.
In criminal trial, the accused has a constitutional right to have his case decided by a 12-person jury, but can opt for trial by the judge alone.
But Assistant Attorney General Mary Ann Ince argued to the Court of Special Appeals that Maryland court rules don’t spell out “specific advisements or fixed incantations” of what a lawyer should explain to his client.
What’s more, Ince told the court, Bell clearly told the court he understood his waiver.
Bell is serving a 10-year-sentence at the Roxbury Correctional Center in Hagerstown.
Whether the court’s ruling makes Bell a free man is yet to be seen. If the state doesn’t ask for a review from the state’s highest court, Weiss said, Bell will be retried on the same charges in Prince George’s County Circuit Court. Ince declined to comment on the Attorney General’s office’s plans at this time. -30-