Saturday, May 5, 2007

Martin V. State (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed May 3, 2007--Opinion by Judge Arrie Davis.

Martin was convicted by a jury of robbery and sentenced to eight years imprisonment, all but eighteen months suspended, accompanied by three years of supervised probation. His appeal presented the following questions for review:

  1. Was the evidence legally sufficient to sustain a conviction for robbery where the prosecution failed to show that [Martin] used threat of force to obtain property?
  2. Did the trial court err when it refused to clarify and supplement a jury instruction upon a critical issue?
  3. Did the trial court err in its jury instructions that excluded a defense at issue?
  4. Did the trial court err when it substituted an erroneous statement of the law in the jury instructions?

The alleged victim ("Turner") testified that he stopped to speak with a neighbor while walking his dog when Martin accosted him with a baseball bat demanding that Turner return $150 to him from a botched drug buy. Demanding more than the $100 in Turner's pocket, Martin followed Turner home where he recovered the remaining $50. The encounter at Martin's home was accompanied by a 911 call for police assistance by Turner's wife. Conversely, Martin testified that Turner had stolen $150 from him in a sham drug transaction. He encountered Turner walking his pit bull and, afraid of the dog, broke off a branch from a nearby tree, approached Martin, and requested his money back. Turner gave him $100 from his pocket, and Martin accompanied him home to recover the remaining $50.

Martin's counsel contemplated raising as a defense that Martin lacked the intent to steal from Turner because he was recovering his own money, i.e., the claim of right defense. Defense counsel's proposed jury instructions to support this claim were summarily rejected by the court.

During deliberations, one of the notes sent by the jury asked, "Does it matter whether the victim felt threatened for there to be a threat of force?" Upon declining to answer the question, the court instructed the jury to rely on prior instructions.

Martin contends that the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to intimidate or intimidated Turner, which is a prerequisite of a robbery conviction. Further, in his brief, he attempted to rationalize the jury verdict and any implications arising therefrom by commenting on what testimony the jury found more credible. This Court disagreed.

Robbery has been defined as "the felonious taking and carrying away of the personal property of another, from his person or in his presence, by violence or putting in fear . . . or, more succinctly, as larceny from the person, accompanied by violence or putting in fear . . .." The "putting in fear" aspect of that definition is of particular relevance to the instant case. The requisite level of fear, utilizing the objective standard, is "any attempt to apply the least force to the person of another constitutes an assault. The attempt is made whenever there is any action or conduct reasonably tending to create the apprehension in another that the person engaged therein is about to apply such force to him. It is sufficient that there is an apparent intention to inflict a battery and an apparent ability to carry out such intention." Martin admitted possessing an object -- whether a bat or a tree branch -- and also admitted that he threatened to hit Turner with the object if he did not produce the money. In the instant case, context is given to the incident in light of Turner's testimony, which indicated he was "scared."

The Court found no need to address Martin's position that the jury rejected Turner's testimony and only Martin's testimony informed the jury what had transpired. In performing a fact-finding role, the jury has authority to decide which evidence to accept and which to reject. Because the trial record demonstrated the applicable objective standard of fear was met, there was sufficient evidence to convince the jury of Martin's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Next, Martin contended that the trial court erred by failing to answer the jury's question. Subsequent to the trial court's response to the jury note, the State filed a motion to reconsider. Martin's counsel did not object to the instruction. Maryland Rule 4-325(e), which sets forth:

No party may assign as error the giving or the failure to give an instruction unless the party objects on the record promptly after the court instructs the jury, stating distinctly the matter to which the party objects and the grounds of the objection. Upon request of any party, the court shall receive objections out of the hearing of the jury. An appellate court, on its own initiative, may however take cognizance of any plain error in the instructions, material to the rights of the defendant, despite a failure to object.

Pursuant to this rule, the Court has consistently held that a party waives his rights when he fails to request an instruction or object to an instruction. Here, Martin did not object to the instruction given nor did he request that an amended instruction be given when the note was sent to the court. The State objected; however, the appellant must object himself to preserve the issue for appellate review. Accordingly, Martin is precluded from raising this issue.

Martin next argues that the claim of right defense has not been abrogated in Maryland and, accordingly, his request to propound a jury instruction should have been granted and that the instruction regarding possession versus title to the property misled the jury. The Court's analysis required determination of whether the requested instruction constituted a correct statement of the law: whether it was applicable under the facts and circumstances of the particular case; and whether it was fairly covered in the instructions given. In general, a party is entitled to have his theory of the case presented to the jury through a requested instruction provided that theory is a correct exposition of the law and it is supported by the evidence. Regardless of any testimony to the contrary, if the Court were to find merit in Martin's contentions and overturn his conviction, the decision would have the practical effect of condoning an otherwise illicit activity. Consequently, the trial court did not err by denying Martin's request for a claim of right jury instruction.

Finally, Martin argues that the final portion of the instruction misled the jury into believing that [Turner's] theft was immaterial and to ascribe it no weight, contending that such instruction was not a proper statement of the law in light of the circumstances. The Court held the disputed portion of the instruction is a correct statement of the law, is applicable based on the facts of the instant case, and was not covered by other instructions.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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