ANNAPOLIS – The Court of Special Appeals Wednesday overturned the rape conviction of a Prince George’s County man, ruling that a written statement taken by police officers was hearsay and was improperly used during a trial where the chief witness could not remember details of the crime.
The case is the first in Maryland that outlines how judges and lawyers must handle witnesses that claim they don’t remember details of a crime, according to the court.
Michael Corbett Sr., 43, will face a new trial on charges of attempted second-degree rape, child abuse and attempted third-degree sexual offense for what police said was an attack on his girlfriend’s 12-year-old daughter. He was originally convicted May 8, 1998, on those charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The appeals court ordered a new trial because the girl’s written statement to police was improperly admitted as evidence. During the trial, the girl said she couldn’t remember details of the rape, so she was allowed to read the written statement to refresh her memory. Still, she said she could not remember. Finally, according to the appeals court ruling, her lawyer asked her to read a portion of the written statement, which detailed the central facts of the rape, as her testimony. The entire written statement was entered into evidence and distributed to the jury, which violated Maryland law, the appeals court held. According to the opinion, the written statement should not have been both distributed to the jury and read into the record, and the trial judge should have determined whether her claims of memory loss were credible. Under Maryland law, written statements taken by police are hearsay and inadmissable, unless they are permitted under an exception. In this case, the statement could have been considered under two exceptions to the law, but the original trial judge would have had to make a determination about the witness’s recollection. If the judge determined the witness was lying when she said she couldn’t remember, the court could force the witness to read the statement to the jury, and the written statement could have been distributed to the jury. If the judge determined the witness was candid about a memory loss, she could read portions of the statement to the jury, but the written version could not go to the jury. “When a witness actually lacks memory of an event (the statement may be admitted into evidence) if it is established through the witness that when the writing was made, the events were fresh in his mind, and that the written statement is authentic and accurately reflects the knowledge he once had,” said the opinion by Judge Deborah S. Byrnes. Because the girl’s statement “was the only direct testimony by the crime victim about the events constituting the criminal act,” the jury may have placed too much emphasis on it, the judge wrote. “The State maintains that the selective manner in which (she) testified about the events of August 20, 1997, demonstrated that she was trying to evade the questions posed to her relating to appellant’s conduct,” said the opinion. “She, in fact, remembered the central events, but was unwilling to testify about them. It concedes, however, that from the cold record, it is impossible to determine whether (she) was being evasive in her answers or whether she was unable to answer because her memory was faulty.” Corbett was living with the Suitland girl and her mother when the incident was originally reported in August 1997, according to the opinion. In her statement to police at the time, she said she was sleeping on the couch and awoke with her undergarments off and Corbett on top of her. She told police she immediately began screaming for her mother and after the episode called her mother at work, the opinion said. Her mother returned home and called police, but later claimed she did not hear her daughter’s statement to police. In court, the girl said she remembered vaguely what happened, the ruling said. Mark Colvin, Corbett’s lawyer, declined to comment saying he recently was assigned the case and was unfamiliar with the details. The Maryland State’s Attorney’s office declined comment. In court, the girl read a portion of her seven-page statement to police. Of the seven pages, four were handwritten and the others were pages of questions answered by the victim. The state’s attorney objected to entering the written testimony, saying the girl remembered the events but did not want to testify. -30- CNS-3-1-00