ANNAPOLIS – A Maryland appeals court has again overturned the triple-murder conviction of a Prince George’s County man and ordered a new trial — his third in four years.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals Thursday overturned Terrence Zachary Butler’s 1997 conviction in the deaths of his girlfriend, her brother and her 2-year-old son, whose bodies were bound and left in a burning car in Washington, D.C.
The appeals court said Butler should get a new trial because the jury that convicted him had not been instructed to decide whether the murders occurred in the district or Prince George’s County.
In December 1991, police found the bodies of Marvis Willis, her brother Raynard and her son Donnell in a burning car in Northwest Washington. The adults had been shot, and the child, still in his pajamas, had been asphyxiated.
All three had been wrapped in blankets that were taken from her house and taped around the victims before the car was doused with gasoline and set ablaze.
District Police arrested Butler, who had been living with Marvis Willis until just before the incident, when she kicked him out for cheating on her.
Police said Butler had been at the scene of the fire and a neighbor testified that he saw him Butler leaving Willis’ apartment in the rental car that was later torched.
Blood stains on the rug in Willis’ Suitland apartment and other evidence led police to believe that the murders had been committed in Prince George’s County, where Butler was eventually charged.
He was found guilty of the murders in April 1994, but that conviction was appealed because Butler had dismissed his public defender and tried to serve as his own counsel. The Court of Special Appeals ordered a new trial, ruling that Butler had not been properly informed of the consequences of his decision.
In his second trial, Butler was convicted last year of one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of use of a handgun in a felony. He was sentenced to life without parole.
But a three-judge panel of the Court of Special Appeals said Thursday that Prince George’s Circuit Judge Arthur Ahalt should have specifically instructed jurors in the 1997 trial to determine that the murders occurred in the county. Under Maryland law, suspects must be tried where the murders occurred.
Because Ahalt did not instruct the jury to determine whether the murders occurred in the county, Butler deserves a new trial, the court said.
“The bodies of the victims and the alleged murder weapon were discovered in the District of Columbia, and there was evidence that the gun had been discharged inside the passenger compartment of the car,” the court wrote. “The facts pertaining to territorial jurisdiction were not undisputed, as the state contends.”
The court rejected a claim that Ahalt erred by letting jurors consider Butler’s previous conviction for theft with a handgun.
“We’re disappointed, knowing that this was his second trial,” said Paula Burr, spokeswoman for the Prince George’s State’s Attorney Office.
The office will decide how to proceed in the case after State’s Attorney Jack Johnson returns from an out-of-town trip, Burr said.