- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Ronald Thomas-Bey returned to Calvert County’s courthouse last week for a hearing from his murder conviction in a 1975 store holdup in St. Mary’s, as he now seeks a new trial because of a recent appeals court ruling on challenging an old version of jury instructions.
Brothers and sisters of the convicted former Charlotte Hall resident, now 59, sat in the front row of a courtroom, not far from where a portrait hangs of the judge who presided at the trial in the case. Former Circuit Judge Perry Bowen’s remarks to the jurors who convicted Thomas-Bey, and how closely they may have anticipated appeals court rulings years later on what judges should tell jurors, were a focus of the hearing that occurred amid a statewide review of cases.
Judge Marjorie L. Claggett, currently serving on Calvert’s circuit court, said at the hearing’s close that she will rule in one month whether Bowen’s instructions at Thomas-Bey’s trial were of the sort that have since been declared unconstitutional, and whether Thomas-Bey could still raise the issue.
Maryland’s appeals courts mandated changes in those instructions not long after Thomas-Bey’s trial, but a ruling last year by the Court of Appeals has triggered post-conviction relief hearings on whether prison inmates still alive and in custody more than three decades after their trials are entitled to a new day in court.
In January 1975, two men went into a High’s convenience store in Charlotte Hall, where 49-year-old Vera Mae Long of Mechanicsville, a manager at the business, was shot in the head and killed. Mary Pauline Hyde, a 35-year-old Charlotte Hall resident also employed at the store, was shot three times but survived her injuries.
Thomas-Bey was arrested within a week after the crime. A second suspect also was arrested through the investigation, and eventually died in prison, according to a St. Mary’s prosecutor.
Thomas-Bey’s case was transferred for trial from St. Mary’s to Calvert, where he was convicted of first-degree murder, his current lawyer said last week, and he ultimately was sentenced to serve life in prison, plus 70 years.
Last year’s ruling on jury instructions by the Maryland Court of Appeals focused on the case of Merle Unger, convicted in 1976 of felony murder and sentenced to life in prison in the shooting death of a Hagerstown police officer after a robbery at a store. Maryland’s constitution at that time called for jurors to be told that they “shall be the judges of the law, as well as of fact,” and the judge at Unger’s trial told the jurors that his instructions to the panel were “merely advisory” and could be rejected as they made their decision.
By the early 1980s, state and federal appeals courts had ruled that jurors in Maryland were bound to heed a judge’s instructions that they would have to find there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict a defendant in a criminal case.
Last year’s ruling delved into cases that steered their way through various post-trial venues in the decades that followed, particularly on the issues of what limits, if any, would prevent a prisoner from continuing to pursue a challenge to “advisory” instructions received at his or her trial.
The appeals court ruled that defense lawyers at those trials could not have been expected to be “clairvoyant” and make objections preserving the issue until after the law was changed.
“It is a well-established principle of Maryland law that a new interpretation of a constitutional provision or a statute is fully retroactive if that interpretation affects the integrity of the fact-finding process,” the state’s top court ruled in affirming a circuit court ruling that Unger was entitled to a new trial. “A new interpretation of the jury’s role in a criminal case certainly could have an impact on the fact-finding function.”
Erica J. Suter, Thomas-Bey’s lawyer at last week’s hearing, said that Bowen told jurors at her client’s trial that they would decide both the facts “and the law as well,” and that her client’s right to challenge the judge’s remarks was not established until the appeals court’s ruling last year in the Unger case.
St. Mary’s Deputy State’s Attorney Theodore Weiner countered that the ruling in the Unger case strictly dealt with determining at what point defendants had waived their right to raise the issue during post-trial proceedings. “There was no holding in Unger about the jury instructions,” Weiner said, adding that Thomas-Bey failed to raise the issue during six opportunities since 1981, when the instructions were changed.
And if the jury instructions at Thomas-Bey’s trial are still a viable issue, Weiner said Bowen’s remarks to the jurors in effect foresaw the problem because he did not tell them they could pay “no attention” to him or decide the law for themselves.
Bowen made references to the jurors being “satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt,” the prosecutor said, as a standard of guilt.
“That’s mandatory language that meets the 1981 standard, ... almost mark for mark,” Weiner said. “I don’t think he was a seer. I think he was a scholar of the law. These are good [instructions], ahead of their time. Judge Bowen meet[s] the criteria six years earlier.”
Claggett said to Thomas-Bey’s lawyer, “Your client has had at least three hearings where this issue could have been raised. To me, your client’s case is worlds different than Unger.”
Suter replied that Bowen’s initial “advisory” comments to the jurors about his instructions “eviscerates” any other remarks he made to them, because he first told them that “anything I say, you’re permitted to ignore.”
“The defendant clearly could not raise this claim prior to 2012,” Suter added, because although the jury instructions changed more than three decades ago, it was the Unger ruling from last year that declared the older form of instructions a violation of a constitutional right.