Maryland Court Reviews Allegations of an “Illegal Sentence” in Criminal Case

Depending on the facts of a criminal case, a person may invoke any number of claims to overturn his or her conviction. For one, under Maryland law, a defect in the return of a jury verdict could render a conviction illegal and therefore a nullity. But understanding the situation under which such a claim might be viable and successful is a significant part of the post-conviction relief process. An experienced criminal defense attorney from Maryland would be able to assess your case in order to determine whether you would be able to challenge a conviction.

Under Maryland Rule 4-345(a), a court has the authority to correct an illegal sentence at any time. This refers to a situation in which no sentence or sanction should have been imposed, which includes a verdict of conviction that has not been finalized properly. Article 21 of the State’s Declaration of Rights in its Constitution provides that every person is entitled to a speedy trial by an impartial jury, “without whose unanimous consent he ought not to be found guilty.” Essentially, this means that a jury’s verdict must be unanimous in order to sustain a criminal conviction.

In a recent criminal case, Roderick Colvin filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence, arguing that the jury verdicts supporting his convictions were not unanimous. Specifically, he alleged that the jury “foreperson” was not polled after announcing the jury’s verdicts. Here, the jury convicted Colvin of felony murder, assault with intent to murder, and several other related crimes. The court affirmed Colvin’s convictions back in 1989. The court of appeals denied his appeal for review, and his motion for post-conviction relief was also denied in 2000. Twenty-four years after his conviction, in 2013, Colvin filed this motion to correct an illegal sentence, arguing that the court clerk failed to poll the jury foreperson after she announced the jury’s verdicts.

The circuit court denied the motion. Colvin appealed, contending that the court erred by:  1) concluding that a polling process defect – allegedly failing to ensure that the verdict was unanimous – is not a cognizable claim that could render Colvin’s sentence illegal under Maryland Rule 4-345(a); and 2) concluding that the foreperson of the jury is also announcing his or her verdict when delivering the jury’s verdict as a whole, thereby rendering it unnecessary for the foreperson to be polled to ensure unanimity.

The court of appeals first ruled that the circuit court did err by concluding that Colvin’s claim was not cognizable under the law. The court held that in certain circumstances, a defect in the return of a verdict may nullify a conviction, and Colvin properly raised the issue in his motion to correct an illegal sentence. Next, the court reviewed case law from within and without the jurisdiction and found that no other court has addressed this precise issue. However, the court ultimately concluded that polling the jurors and not expressly including the foreperson is permissible and constitutes a unanimous verdict. Therefore, the procedure followed in this case was considered “accepted practice.” The foreperson announced the verdict and then requested a poll, after which the clerk polled the other jurors, asking whether their verdict was the same as that of the foreperson.

While the court upheld the verdict as unanimous, and not an illegal sentence, there are cases in which defects occur that can render a verdict a nullity. Anyone arrested, charged, or convicted of a crime may be entitled to any number of defenses or claims for relief. It is important to review and assess your case with an experienced criminal defense attorney from the local area. Anthony A. Fatemi has extensive experience handling criminal defense cases throughout Maryland.  Our office can work diligently to develop a strong strategy to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

Related Blog Posts:

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Maryland Court Overturns Conviction Based on Error During Voir Dire (Jury Questioning)

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