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Maryland Court of Appeals Abrogates Rule Requiring Corroboration of Accomplices’ Testimony and Announces New Rule

by Douglas Ankney

The Maryland Court of Appeals abrogated the rule that required the testimony of accomplice(s) be independently corroborated and replaced it with a new rule.

In August 2015, Sandeep Bhulai’s body was discovered lying next to his vehicle. He had been shot multiple times. The investigation led police to six suspects: Christian Tyson, Keith Harrison, Kareem Riley, Ramart Wilson, Michael Jobes, and Hassan Jones. Jones was implicated solely by the accounts of Tyson, Riley, and Wilson. Jones was arrested on charges of first and second-degree murder, first-degree felony murder, use of a firearm during a violent crime, armed robbery, and conspiracy to commit carjacking.

At Jones’ jury trial, Tyson, Riley, and Wilson testified pursuant to a plea agreement. Tyson testified that he, Jones, Jobes, and Harrison forced Bhulai from his car at gunpoint. Tyson took Bhulai’s cellphone. Jobes, Harrison, and Jones then shot Bhulai several times. Riley testified that he was sitting with Wilson in Wilson’s car when he heard gunshots shortly before the other four men arrived carrying handguns. Jones told Riley to “hurry up and get us away from here, we just shot someone.”

Wilson testified that a photo on his cellphone depicted Jones and the rest of the group. The jury found Jones guilty only of conspiracy to commit armed carjacking. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

A panel of the Court of Special Appeals reversed, holding that the accomplices’ testimony was not corroborated by other evidence. The Court of Appeals granted the State’s petition for a writ of certiorari on two questions: (1) whether the Court of Special Appeals properly applied the accomplice corroboration rule and (2) should the accomplice corroboration rule be revised to permit a jury to weigh the accomplice’s testimony as long as the jury is properly instructed?

The Court observed that the accomplice corroboration rule requires exactly what its name suggests — that the State must present independent corroboration of accomplice testimony to sustain a conviction. Williams v. State, 771 A.2d 1082 (Md. 2001).

The Court then observed that prior to 1911 the accomplice corroboration rule did not exist. In the 1700s, the practice was to discourage convictions based solely on accomplice testimony through the common-law function of the judge advising the jury. Wigmore on Evidence: Evidence in Trials at Common Law, § 2056 (1978). But “in a misguided moment,” this function of the judge was “eradicated from our system.” Id. The Court observed that the accomplice corroboration rule was adopted in Maryland in 1911 due to the inherent danger that an accomplice would testify falsely to secure a better deal for himself, to curry favor with law enforcement and the prosecution, or to minimize his own role in the crime. Luery v. State, 81 A. 681 (Md. 1911). But, under the accomplice corroboration rule, highly reliable accomplice testimony could not even be presented to a jury when there wasn’t any independent corroboration, while less reliable testimony could be presented as long as there was corroboration.

After explaining the accomplice corroboration rule, the Court turned to the present case and rejected the State’s contention that the group photograph purporting to depict Jones constitutes the requisite independent corroborative evidence. The Court explained that whether the photograph even depicts Jones rests entirely on Wilson’s testimony that it does. An accomplice’s testimony can’t serve to corroborate itself, the Court instructed. Jeandell v. State, 34 Md.App. 108 (1976). Thus, the State failed to corroborate the accomplices’ testimony, and without it, there isn’t legally sufficient evidence to support Jones’ conviction.

The Court then turned its attention on the issue of whether the accomplice corroboration rule should be dropped in favor of the alternative approach that permits defendants to be convicted based entirely on accomplice testimony.

The Court announced its adoption of the alternative approach that allows “the jury to determine the credibility of accomplice testimony following a cautionary instruction.” It instructed: “when accomplices testify to uncorroborated facts, the issue will be the weight of the evidence, not its legal sufficiency and trial courts need only give a cautionary instruction.”

According to the Court, the new rule seeks a better balance by permitting juries to weigh the credibility of the testimony, whether or not it is corroborated, while also cautioning the jury with instruction of the inherent dangers of accomplice testimony. It observed that 32 states, the District of Columbia, the federal courts, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands have all either not adopted the accomplice-corroboration rule or have abandoned it, and now Maryland joins the majority of other jurisdictions. The Court attached model jury instructions from other jurisdictions to provide guidance on how juries are to be instructed.

Finally, the Court ruled that the newly adopted rule does not apply to Jones in the present case and that the rule applies only prospectively.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals overturning Jones’ conviction and instructed that the “new rule is to be applied to all trials commencing with the date of our mandate.” See: State v. Jones, 2019 Md. LEXIS 451 (2019).

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