ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Court of Appeals overturned assault and other convictions against a Charles County man who said he was forced to testify at his trial in his prison-issued orange jumpsuit.
Tuesday’s ruling reversed the Court of Special Appeals’ decision that the unmarked orange uniform did not hurt Michael Timothy Knott’s credibility before the jury. The high court ordered a new trial for Knott.
The case began on Nov. 13, 1994, when Cornell Posey caught his live-in girlfriend, Erika Denise Carroll, in a Waldorf motel room with Knott.
Posey, who testified that he drank a six-pack of beer and a pint of brandy that day, said he pounded on the door of the Waldorf Motel and it was opened by Knott.
He went inside to find Carroll lying naked on the bed, according to court documents, and walked over to her and punched her in the back. Carroll fell to the floor and went into the bathroom, ignoring Posey’s request for her to come out so that he could speak with her.
Posey said Knott threatened to kill him if he did not leave. He said Knott pulled a knife and began swinging it, chasing Posey from the room and eventually stabbing him nine times.
But Carroll, who lived with Posey at his mother’s house, testified that Knott had not forced her to go to the motel and that he did not have a weapon on him that evening. She said that after Posey hit her in the back, Knott asked him to leave.
Knott testified that it was Posey who then pulled the knife and that, after he wrestled it away, he swung at Posey with the knife in self-defense. He said Posey continued to rush at the bathroom door, even though he was swinging the knife.
Knott was arrested and charged with assault with intent to kill, assault with intent to maim, assault and battery, malicious destruction of property and reckless endangerment.
On his first day of trial, he showed up in Charles County Circuit Court in his orange prison jumpsuit, claiming that his sister failed to bring him civilian clothes he asked for. But after Circuit Judge Robert C. Nalley denied his request for a delay, Knott testified in his prison uniform.
A jury convicted Knott of assault and battery, reckless endangerment and destruction of property and he was sentenced July 19, 1995, to concurrent sentences totaling 10 years.
The Court of Special Appeals upheld the convictions on April 14, 1997, saying that Knott was not forced to testify in the prison garments. Even though he did not think it necessary, Nalley had offered to make arrangements for Knott to change clothes, the court noted.
But the Court of Appeals reversed the ruling Tuesday, saying that “the trial court should have taken some effort to permit the appellant to sit before the jury in clothing that did not give the aura of prisoner.
“The trial court erred in concluding that there was no prejudice to Knott based on the premise that jurors would know from the seriousness of the charges that Knott had been confined,” Judge Lawrence Rodowsky wrote.
“It’s been a long road to justice,” said Knott’s attorney, Tony Bornstein, of the Washington College of Law Appellate Advocacy Clinic.
The court said 20 years ago that a trial judge cannot make a defendant stand trial in a prison uniform, Bornstein said. Forcing Knott to wear his orange prison jumper at trial deprived him of his “presumption of innocence and due process of law,” he said.
“He had to stand before the jury looking like a guilty person,” Bornstein said.
Officials in the Attorney General’s Office, which handled the appeal, could not be reached for comment on the ruling.