Petitioner Eduardo Escobar Martinez was tried before a jury in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County and convicted of involuntary manslaughter of one victim and attempted murder of another. During trial, the court prohibited Petitioner from cross-examining the surviving victim about his potential bias in connection with the State's dismissal of unrelated charges filed against him and his incarceration status pursuant to a writ of body attachment to secure his presence at trial. The Court of Special Appeals held that it was not an abuse of the court's discretion to prohibit such cross-examination. For the reasons that follow, we hold that the Circuit Court erred in barring Petitioner from attempting to impeach the victim witness on matters that could demonstrate the witness's bias. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals and remand the case to that court with directions to order a new trial.
During the early morning hours of September 9, 2006, police officers in Prince George's County found two men, Carlos Humberto Castro-Ventura and Santos Lorenzo Mejicanos, lying on the ground and suffering from multiple stab wounds. Mr. Castro-Ventura later died as a result of those wounds. Mr. Mejicanos, however, survived the attack.
Prince George's County Detective Troy Harding was the lead detective in the investigation of the stabbings. Detective Harding testified that he visited Mejicanos at the hospital on September 12 and 13, 2006. Detective Harding showed Mejicanos a photographic array of potential suspects. The array included a photograph of Petitioner. Mejicanos identified Petitioner as the person who had stabbed him. Detective Harding also showed Mejicanos a photograph of a crucifix tattoo. Mejicanos identified that tattoo as the same as a tattoo he had observed on the arm of one of his assailants, during the attack. Roberto Nicolas, known to Detective Harding as a potential suspect in the attacks, has such a tattoo.
Detective Harding obtained a warrant to search the residence of Nicolas. Two screwdrivers believed to be used in the attack were recovered. Subsequent testing disclosed the presence of Nicolas's DNA on one of the screwdrivers, but no DNA of Petitioner, or anyone else, on the other screwdriver.
The police arrested Nicolas. During interrogation, Nicolas implicated several persons, including Petitioner, in the stabbings. He stated that Petitioner, in the course of the stabbings, used one of the screwdrivers that were recovered from Nicolas's residence.
Petitioner was charged in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County with the murder of Mr. Castro-Ventura, the attempted murder of Mr. Mejicanos, two counts of conspiracy to commit those murders, and related counts. Nicolas and Mejicanos were the State's key witnesses at trial.
Nicolas testified to the following. On the evening of September 8, 2006, he, Petitioner,
Nicolas further testified that Mejicanos attempted to run away, but Petitioner, Garcia, and Mercado overtook and attacked him. When Mejicanos fell to the ground, Petitioner began stabbing him with a screwdriver. The attackers were momentarily distracted by neighbors' screams and Mejicanos was able to escape. Moments later, Petitioner, Garcia, and Mercado began assaulting Mr. Castro-Ventura. During the assault, Petitioner repeatedly stabbed Castro-Ventura with a screwdriver. As the fight ended, Nicolas kicked Castro-Ventura and left him bleeding on the ground. The group then left the scene and went to Rock Creek, where Nicolas observed Petitioner cleaning the screwdriver in a creek.
A medical examiner testified that Mr. Castro-Ventura died as a result of forty-four stab wounds. The medical examiner also testified that a small rectangular object, such as a screwdriver, caused those injuries.
The surviving victim, Mejicanos, testified as a State's witness, under a writ of body attachment to secure his presence at trial after he failed to attend court on the first day of trial. The record reflects that Mejicanos was incarcerated from sometime on the second day of trial until the third day of trial, when he gave his testimony.
The court recited the text of Rules 5-616(a)(4), 5-608(b) and 5-403,
During direct examination, Mejicanos corroborated Nicolas's testimony and identified Petitioner as the individual who stabbed him. Following direct examination, a bench conference produced the following exchange among the court and counsel:
Consistent with the trial court's ruling, defense counsel refrained from cross-examining Mejicanos about either his custody status or the nolle prossed charges.
At the close of the State's case, defense counsel moved for judgment of acquittal on all counts, and the trial court granted the motion on the two counts of conspiracy to commit murder. The remaining charges went to the jury. The jury found Petitioner guilty of involuntary manslaughter and first-degree assault of Mr. Carlos-Ventura and attempted second-degree murder and first-degree assault of Mr. Mejicanos. The court sentenced Petitioner to a total of forty years' imprisonment.
On appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, Petitioner argued, inter alia, that the trial court violated his right of confrontation with respect to Mejicanos, by preventing Petitioner from cross-examining him about matters with the potential to
The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 21 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights guarantee a criminal defendant the right to confront the witnesses against him. Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673, 678, 106 S.Ct. 1431, 89 L.Ed.2d 674 (1986); Church v. State, 408 Md. 650, 663, 971 A.2d 280, 288 (2009). The right of confrontation includes the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses about matters relating to their biases, interests, or motives to testify falsely. Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S. 308, 316-17, 94 S.Ct. 1105, 39 L.Ed.2d 347 (1974); Marshall v. State, 346 Md. 186, 192, 695 A.2d 184, 187 (1997).
The ability to cross-examine witnesses, however, is not unrestricted. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. at 679, 106 S.Ct. 1431; Smallwood v. State, 320 Md. 300, 307, 577 A.2d 356, 359 (1990). A trial court may impose reasonable limits on cross-examination when necessary for witness safety or to prevent harassment, prejudice, confusion of the issues, and inquiry that is repetitive or only marginally relevant. Lyba v. State, 321 Md. 564, 570, 583 A.2d 1033, 1036 (1991). The court, nevertheless, "must allow a defendant wide latitude to cross-examine a witness as to bias or prejudices" so long as the questioning does not "obscure the trial issues and lead to the factfinder's confusion." Smallwood, 320 Md. at 307-08, 577 A.2d at 359 (citations omitted). Only when defense counsel has been "permitted to expose to the jury the facts from which jurors, as the sole triers of fact and credibility, could appropriately draw inferences relating to the reliability of the witness[,]" is the right of confrontation satisfied. Davis, 415 U.S. at 318, 94 S.Ct. 1105. Consequently, a trial court may exercise its discretion to limit cross-examination only after the defendant has been afforded the "`constitutionally required threshold level of inquiry.'" Smallwood, 320 Md. at 307, 577 A.2d at
Our recent decision in Calloway v. State, 414 Md. 616, 996 A.2d 869 (2010), informs the resolution of the present case.
We clarified, moreover, that, "[b]ecause the issue is whether [the witness] had a hope that he would benefit from volunteering to testify against [Calloway], it is of no consequence that the State had not offered to make any deal or bargain with [the witness] regarding his charges and his testimony in [Calloway's] case." Id. at 637, 996 A.2d at 880-81 (internal quotation marks omitted). Nor was it of consequence that the witness might not have admitted under cross-examination that his direct testimony was motivated by self interest. We explained, in that regard:
Calloway, 414 Md. at 638, 996 A.2d at 881 (emphasis added in Calloway). We added that, "[w]hen determining whether a particular item of circumstantial `bias' evidence should be excluded on the ground that it is unfairly prejudicial and/or confusing, the trial court is entitled to consider whether the witness's self interest can be established by other items of evidence." Id., 996 A.2d at 881. Applying the above-quoted principles, we held that "there was a solid factual foundation for an inquiry into [the witness's] self interest, and the circumstantial evidence of [the witness's] self interest was not outweighed—substantially or otherwise—by the danger of confusion and/or unfair prejudice to the State." Id. at 639, 996 A.2d at 881-82.
Application to the present case of the reasoning and holding of Calloway requires reversal of Petitioner's convictions. The facts that a mere six days before Mejicanos testified at the motions hearing in this case, the State nolle prossed charges that had been pending against him, and that he was incarcerated pursuant to a writ of body attachment pending his testimony, presented circumstantial evidence of bias, motivated by self-interest. It matters not whether the nolle prossed charges were the result of a deal with the State, or that the court, not the State, held the keys to Mejicanos's release from the body attachment at the conclusion of his testimony; it matters only what Mejicanos might have thought about those two facts. When a defendant seeks to cross-examine a State's witness to show bias or motive, "the crux of the inquiry insofar as its relevance is concerned, is the witness's state of mind." Smallwood, 320 Md. at 309, 577 A.2d at 360 (quoting Brown, 74 Md.App. at 421, 538 A.2d at 320); accord Calloway, 414 Md. at 636-38, 996 A.2d at 880-81; see also Hoover v. State, 714 F.2d 301, 305 (4th Cir.1983) ("The vital question... is what the witness understands he or she will receive" because the "likelihood that a prosecution witness is shading or even contriving testimony adverse to the defendant reasonably can be viewed as directly correlated with the perceived value of such testimony to the witness.").
In short, there was a solid factual foundation for the defense's inquiry into Mejicanos's potential bias. Moreover, such inquiry was not outweighed at all, much less substantially so, by the danger of confusion to the jury or unfair prejudice to the State. See Calloway, 414 Md. at 638-39, 996 A.2d at 881-82. On one side of the balance, circumstantial evidence that Mejicanos, a key State's witness, was motivated by self-interest to testify falsely was highly probative of the defense's theory that his testimony was not to be trusted.
We hold that the trial court's ruling prevented the jury from considering the possibility that Mejicanos had a motive to