The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, also known as the “double jeopardy clause,” protects a person charged with a crime against multiple punishments for the same offense. Courts are expected to rule on issues that come before them with an eye to ensuring that a criminal defendant’s Constitutional rights are sufficiently protected. The punishment phase of a criminal trial takes place during sentencing. One way to protect against double jeopardy is through the “merger” of sentences. Like most phases of a criminal trial, there are rules and legal requirements governing the possibility of merging sentences. If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, it is extremely important that you contact an experienced Maryland criminal attorney as soon as possible.
In a recent case emerging from Maryland’s highest court, the State appealed the court of appeals’ decision to merge a defendant’s sentences for all predicate felony convictions during the sentencing phase of a felony murder conviction. Here, the State alleged that the defendant (and three others) kidnapped another person, placed him in a vehicle, and tried to get money from him. The State further alleged that one of the four people shot and killed the victim when he attempted to escape. The four were charged with multiple crimes, including first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, kidnapping, use of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence or felony, and unlawfully carrying, wearing, or transporting a handgun.
The defendant/respondent herein was convicted of felony murder, robbery, kidnapping, and other crimes. The court sentenced him to life imprisonment for the felony murder conviction, as well as to 20 years’ imprisonment concurrently for kidnapping and another 10 years’ imprisonment concurrently for robbery. He appealed the sentence.
The court of appeals vacated, among other things, the robbery and kidnapping sentences, concluding that the rule of lenity required merger of those sentences because it was not clear which felony was the “predicate” felony underlying the felony murder conviction. The State petitioned this court for a writ of certiorari, asking it to determine whether the appeals court erred in merging the robbery and kidnapping sentences into the felony murder sentence, instead of merging only one of them. In its appeal, the State argued that under Maryland law, only one predicate felony conviction may be merged for sentencing purposes with a felony murder conviction.
In response, the defendant argued that because it is unclear which predicate felony established the basis for the felony murder conviction, the law requires that the sentences merge. Under Maryland law, Section 2-201, first-degree murder may be proven by a homicide committed during the perpetration (or even attempted perpetration) of certain identified felonies. The Court of Special Appeals concluded that, when a defendant is convicted of felony murder and several predicate felonies, only one conviction for a predicate felony merges with the felony murder conviction for sentencing purposes.
The Court further concluded that the predicate felony with the greatest maximum sentence merges for sentencing purposes. Accordingly, the defendant may still be sentenced separately for the remaining predicate felonies. This case nicely illustrates the complicated nature of the state criminal code, especially at the sentencing phase of a trial. An experienced criminal defense attorney would fully understand these laws and how they apply to various kinds of criminal cases and at various stages. Anthony A. Fatemi has extensive experience handling criminal defense cases throughout Maryland. Our office will work diligently to develop a strong strategy to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
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