- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Ronald Thomas-Bey, a former Charlotte Hall resident, has been granted a new trial from the shooting death of a store manager in a 1975 holdup.
A judge dismissed the murder conviction, which followed an old version of jury instructions that has since been ruled unconstitutional.
Judge Marjorie L. Clagett, currently serving in Calvert’s circuit court where Thomas-Bey was tried, issued a ruling that even if former Circuit Judge Perry Bowen only told jurors one time that his instructions to them about the law were “advisory only,” and stressed the required burden of proof, a Maryland Court of Appeals’ binding opinion “did not consider the frequency of the ‘advisory only’ jury instruction, or the language of the burden-of-proof jury instructions.”
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 and later convicted. A new trial would be held in St. Mary’s County.
Clagett also found that although Thomas-Bey received other post-trial hearings after his conviction, he had not waived his right to pursue the jury-instruction issue. She quoted state law that “an allegation of error may not be considered to be finally litigated ... [if a higher court rules that the state or U.S. constitution] imposes on state criminal proceedings a procedural or substantive standard not previously recognized.”
St. Mary’s Deputy State’s Attorney Theodore Weiner, who argued against Thomas-Bey’s request for a new trial at a hearing last month, said Thursday that he is considering asking the Maryland Court of Special Appeals to review Clagett’s ruling, before he decides to seek a new trial in the case or a plea agreement.
“We’re considering the options,” Weiner said.
Last month’s hearing on Thomas-Bey’s case occurred amid a statewide review of cases where the standard remarks to jurors have since been declared unconstitutional. Weiner said the issue has been raised, at a more preliminary level, in two other St. Mary’s homicide cases.
Maryland’s appeals courts mandated changes in jury instructions not long after Thomas-Bey’s trial, but a ruling last year by the Maryland 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.
A second suspect also was arrested through the investigation of the holdup and murder at the High’s store, and eventually died in prison, according to the prosecutor.
Thomas-Bey’s case was transferred for trial from St. Mary’s to Calvert, where he was convicted of first-degree murder, according to his lawyer at last month’s hearing, 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.
Erica J. Suter, Thomas-Bey’s lawyer at last month’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.