An appellate court last month threw out the first-degree murder conviction of a Prince George's County man in a 2002 slaying, ruling that the defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated.
A prosecutor had dropped the charges against the man to wait for DNA test results and had charged him again after the tests were completed.
State law requires that defendants be tried within 180 days of the day that the defendant first appears in Circuit Court or his attorney officially enters his appearance. The only way around the requirement is if the defendant waives his or her right to a speedy trial or a judge finds good cause to delay the trial.
In a 28-page ruling, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals threw out the convictions of first- and second-degree murder and use of a handgun in a crime of violence against Wayne David Wheeler, 27, of Temple Hills. In effect, the appellate court said the clock on the 180-day deadline did not stop when the prosecutor dropped the charges against Wheeler.
The state attorney general's office handled the appeal on behalf of the Prince George's state's attorney's office. Kevin Enright, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said officials have not decided whether to appeal the decision to the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals.
The attorney general's office has 45 days from the date of the ruling to appeal. If the decision is not appealed, Wheeler will get a new trial.
"I was disappointed with the opinion. It really puts us between a rock and a hard place in cases involving serious violent crimes," said Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey. "I'm not throwing stones at the judges, but we have a difference of opinion.
"If there's a case involving forensic evidence, you either have to leave him out on the street until the testing is done or you run the risk of having the conviction overturned if you have scheduling problems," Ivey said.
On Jan. 27, 2004, a Prince George's jury convicted Wheeler in the Aug. 2, 2002, murder of Tyrone Whitman, court records show. According to charging documents filed by county police Detective Troy Harding, Whitman and two other men were standing near an apartment building at 6559 Hilmar Dr. in Forestville when a Dodge minivan drove up.
Several men jumped out of the minivan and began firing, the charging document said. Whitman was shot in the back of the head with a shotgun, a second man was wounded in the leg and the third man escaped injury, Harding wrote.
County police officers who were nearby chased the minivan, which crashed a few blocks away. Three men jumped out of the minivan and ran away.
Four hours later, a resident called police to report a man in her back yard, and a county officer responded and identified the man, Wheeler, as one of the men he had chased after the minivan crashed, according to the charging document and the appellate decision.
A shotgun was recovered inside the minivan, according to the charging document. Prosecutors believed that Wheeler was the driver of the minivan, according to the appellate decision.
On Sept. 5, 2002, Prince George's prosecutors indicted Wheeler on murder and other charges. Eighteen days later, on Sept. 23, Wheeler's defense attorney entered his appearance, which meant the state had to bring Wheeler to trial within 180 days, or no later than March 22, 2003, according to the appellate decision.
On Jan. 17, 2003, more than five months after the shootings, the state filed a motion to obtain a DNA sample from Wheeler to compare to items from the minivan, such as the driver's side air bag, a spot of blood on the steering column, a synthetic rubber mask, a cigarette, a bandanna and a T-shirt.
The DNA sample was obtained from Wheeler in early February 2003. On Feb. 27, Assistant State's Attorney Darlene Soltys told Wheeler's defense attorney that none of the DNA tests conducted linked Wheeler to the crime and informed him that she intended to seek a continuance.
On March 3, the date set for the trial, Soltys asked Circuit Court Judge Ronald D. Schiff for additional time for several reasons, including to allow time to conduct further DNA tests. Soltys said she thought Wheeler would agree to a plea bargain, but because he didn't, the state would have to conduct more DNA tests.
"I felt that the DNA would sort of be the impetus that will sort of encourage the defendant to realize it's to his advantage to cooperate with the state," Soltys said.
Soltys said it would take about a month to conduct the additional DNA tests. At that point, the 180-day deadline was to expire in 19 days. Soltys said there was insufficient evidence to convict Wheeler without further DNA testing, according to the appellate opinion.
Schiff denied the prosecutor's request, noting that Soltys's reasons for seeking the continuance did not amount to good cause to go beyond the 180-day deadline.
Ninety minutes later, Soltys told Schiff the state was dropping the charges against Wheeler.
On April 22, 2003, further testing showed that Wheeler's DNA was on a T-shirt found in the minivan. The state filed an application for the reinstatement of charges, and Wheeler was again arrested on June 26, 2003. He was indicted two weeks later.
In its opinion, the Court of Special Appeals wrote that when Soltys dropped the charges against Wheeler, "she was proceeding under the erroneous belief" that she could, in effect, stop the clock on the requirement to go to trial within 180 days.