One of my favorite appellate judges -- based solely on his prose -- has opined on a burglary case out of Harford County.
The suspect, convicted of breaking into a friend's home in 2009 as they vacationed in New York, wanted the Court of Special Appeals to throw out the case based on several factors, such a whether the judge erred in allowing the jury to hear certain evidence, and whether the facts presented were legally sufficient for a guilty finding.
The defendant didn't dispute his conviction of theft, but said first-degree burglary conviction, which landed him 20 years in prison, was out of line. The judge, Charles E. Moylan Jr., ruled in the state's favor, upholding the conviction of Brett Russell Molter.
The key was whether a logical inference could be made that because Molter was found in possession of the stolen goods, that he had been the one who stole them. He was a friend of the victims, had been inside their home in the past and knew they would be out of town.
Moylan, who has a penchant for flowery writing, opened his 31-page opinion this way:
"Suppose that Scotland Yard, in late 1888, could have established that an otherwise innocuous denizen of London's Whitechapel neighborhood had been in the unexplained possession of a locket worn no more than two or three days earlier by one of the victims of Jack the Ripper. How far might the Crown have gone with the resulting inference? It is just such an inference, and the reach of its inferential potency, that is the primary focus of this appeal."
For a full dose of Moylan, read his opinion in this case here. Here a section that sums up some of the case:
The appellant contends that he was erroneously denied the opportunity to have his
counsel stage a demonstration in closing argument that arguably might have diminished the significance of something testified to by the burglary victim, Eric Eisenrauch.
When Eisenrauch and Amy Batchellor were called upon to examine the treasure trove of property recovered from the trunk of the appellant's automobile, they identified eight articles as belonging to them, which they had earlier described to the police in meticulous detail. One of them was a Sharp video camera belonging to Eisenrauch.
As Eisenrauch's direct examination needlessly rambled on past the point of diminishing returns, however, Eisenrauch tossed in a gratuitous embellishment, unobjected to at the time, that ultimately touched a raw nerve in the defense psyche. Eisenrauch recounted that when he got his camera home, he screwed it onto its waiting tripod and then proudly showed the police how the two fit together. "Voila!"
It was, however, a meaningless "Voila!" It was a needless superfluity, except that it somehow stuck in the craw of the defense. The rightful ownership of the stolen goods generally, including the Sharp video camera, was never in issue. Quite aside from the camera, the purses and the necklace and the watch box and the tool bag clinched the case that the goods in the appellant's trunk had been stolen from Eisenrauch and Ms. Batchellor.
The conjugal compatibility of camera and tripod was as meaningless a fillip as would have been Eisenrauch's triumphal announcement that the camera fit perfectly into its accustomed niche on the bookshelf or that its color matched that of the upholstery in the den or that Lassie wagged her tail when the faithful camera came home. What the appellant is now fighting about was, at most, a minuscule or Lilliputian corroboration of something that needed no corroboration.
The appellant has, indeed, conceded the only thing that the tripod match could conceivably have been used to show. The appellant concedes that his unexplained possession of goods recently stolen from Eisenrauch and Ms. Batchellor was legally sufficient to give rise to the inference that he was the thief. He does not challenge his conviction for theft based on that uncontroverted evidence. His only challenge, with respect to the burglary conviction alone, is with how far the permitted inculpatory inference may reach.
The appellant's line in the sand is that the inference that he was the thief may not do double duty as an inference that he was also the burglar, even where other evidence is enough to support the conclusion that the thief and the burglar were one and the same. The appellant does not challenge the only thing that the tripod fit might arguably have helped to show, to wit, that Eisenrauch was the rightful owner of the stolen camera.
The appellant, in effect, concedes having lost the war but protests against the chutzpah of the victor in shouting the last hurrah. The witness's possibly excessive hubris, however, added nothing to the State's case.
To counter the last hurrah, defense counsel, the morning after this soupcon of testimony about the tripod fit was introduced, proffered to the court, "So I went home and grabbed my tripod and tried every camera I had and realized that, for the most part, tripods are universal and every camera has a hole in the bottom of it that it clicks into." Defense counsel then proposed doing a demonstration during closing argument of what she had done at home. Ultimately, over State objection, Judge Plitt did not allow it.
The appellant contends that he was thereby denied a fair trial Due process, however, does not confer a right to respond to an inconsequentiality with a counter-inconsequentiality. Completely without regard to whether camera-tripod compatibility was shown to be unique or universal or something in between, the appellant's fate was sealed, and that is the quintessence of harmless error.