The Maryland Rules of Criminal Procedure provide that a person convicted of a crime may file, at any time, a petition for writ of actual innocence in the Court where he or she was convicted.
The petition must be based on newly discovered evidence, that creates a substantial or significant possibility that the outcome of the case would have been different had the new evidence been introduced, and the evidence could not have been discovered in time to file a motion for new trial. How such petitions are handled by the Courts was analyzed in a recent unreported opinion from Maryland’s intermediate appellate court in a case called Tony Ford v. State of Maryland.
A petition claiming actual innocence must set forth in detail what this new evidence is, and the petitioner has the burden of convincing the Court that the writ should be granted. The State must be notified and may respond, and the victim or victim’s family must also be given notice. After a hearing the judge can deny the petition, or set aside the verdict or order a new trial.
The opinion indicates that Ford was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder and use of a handgun in a felony, and sentenced to life in prison. He filed several requests for post-conviction relief which were all denied.
He then filed a Petition for Writ of Actual Innocence, contending that his appellate lawyer had found newly discovered evidence in the form of a statement by a witness named Nelson that supposedly had not been produced by the prosecution before trial.
That statement indicated that the victim previously came to Nelson and told him if anything ever happened to him, it was likely because of the acts of someone other than Ford.
The trial court held a hearing on the petition, and Ford’s prior trial counsel testified he could not recall hearing anything about this Nelson. However, he admitted he did not have his file and could not remember whether he knew about this before the trial in 1997. The State produced documents showing it had produced Nelson’s name and information before the trial. The trial Judge held that this evidence was not newly discovered and denied the petition.
The appellate Court noted that its review was limited to whether the trial judge had committed an abuse of discretion. It would not disturb the fact finding of the trial court, and affirmed the denial of this petition.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.