A Colorado man who was arrested after appearing in Maryland as a material witness in another man’s murder trial was unable to reverse his conviction and life sentence through the appeals process. The man lost his appeal because, even though he possibly had a valid claim that his arrest violated a state statute, he failed to raise the issue of that violation during his trial. By waiting until his appeal to bring up the violation, the man was too late, according to a recent opinion by the Court of Special Appeals. The outcome presents a clear illustration of the importance of identifying all issues in your case and presenting them in the timeframe required by the law in order to avoid the problem of waiver.
The underlying crime, the 2000 murder of Heidi Bernadzikowski, was one of Baltimore’s most well-known cold cases. In 2011, police found DNA evidence linking Alexander Bennett of Colorado to the crime. Bennett killed the woman, serving as a hitman for the woman’s boyfriend, Stephen Cooke. During Bennett’s trial, the state named another Coloradan, Grant Lewis, as a material witness. After a Colorado court ordered Lewis to appear in Maryland for Bennett’s trial, he traveled to Maryland. He was in court on the day Bennett pled guilty. When Bennett told the court what he did, he accused Lewis of serving as his accomplice. Law enforcement officers promptly arrested Lewis.
Lewis went to trial, was found guilty, and received a life sentence. After his conviction, Lewis appealed. Lewis originally appeared in court in the Bennett trial in accordance with the terms of a Maryland statute called the “Uniform Act to Secure Attendance of Witnesses from Without a State in Criminal Proceedings.” He was only a material witness to Bennett’s crime until Bennett made his statement. With Bennett’s statement, the state had a strong case against Lewis. There was, potentially, one major flaw in Lewis’ conviction. The Uniform Act offers immunity from arrest to people who are only in Maryland in response to a court summons.
Lewis nevertheless was convicted, and his conviction was upheld on appeal. Why did he lose in spite of the statute’s immunity language? It was because of the way he carried out his defense at trial. During all of his proceedings before the trial court, Lewis never presented an argument that the state violated the Uniform Act’s immunity provision. The man only offered this argument of a Uniform Act violation during his appeal. By that point, it was too late. By failing to make a Uniform Act violation argument in front of the trial court, his claim was invalid based upon the principle of waiver, which says that, by not advancing an argument in the trial court, that party waives (or forfeits) that argument.
Lewis tried unsuccessfully to argue that the statutory violation meant that the trial court never had jurisdiction over him or his crime, which would mean that his entire prosecution, conviction, and sentence were void. This interpretation of the law was incorrect. The violation was “a defect in the institution of prosecution, not jurisdiction.” Had the violation been one regarding jurisdiction, Lewis could have made this argument at any point, including for the first time on appeal. However, since the defect was one regarding the conduct of his prosecution, the law required him first to present the argument to the trial court. Since he did not do so, the legal rules regarding waiver dictated that he had waived his right to advance this argument. As a result, his conviction stood.
Sometimes, the difference between success and failure in the defense of criminal charges is bringing all the right arguments at the right times. Experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has spent many years representing people accused of crimes and can help you ensure that you get a strong defense and that your rights are fully protected. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
More blog posts:
Maryland Court Upholds Sentence for Conspiracy and Murder Convictions, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 6, 2016
Maryland Court Upholds Admission of Evidence of Other Crimes in Attempted Second-Degree Murder Case, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 26, 2015