An Edgewood man, convicted in 1980 of the execution style murder of a shopkeeper during a robbery, has been granted a new trial under a controversial ruling that has vacated scores of old murder convictions around the state.
Retired Harford Circuit Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. said he was "compelled" to grant the new trial to Bryan Keith Quickley based on the Court of Appeals ruling in what has become known as the Unger Case, where the state's highest court declared faulty instructions to juries prior to 1980 raised a legal cloud over convictions.
In an opinion dated Aug. 5, Plitt ruled Quickley is entitled to a new trial. The judge, however, also ordered that Quickley remain incarcerated pending the new trial.
The Harford County State's Attorney's Office, which opposed the new trial, has filed a motion asking Plitt to reconsider his judgment. The motion cites a pending case before the Court of Special Appeals stemming from a ruling by a Washington County judge that denied a post conviction petition based on an Unger claim, saying to do so was not in the best interest of justice, according to the motion.
"We are working on getting the court to grant us leave to appeal," Harford State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly said Tuesday, explaining that motion for leave to appeal would be filed by the end of the day.
If Plitt won't stay his decision granting the new trial pending the appeal, which the State's Attorney's Office has also requested, then Cassilly said he is prepared to retry Quickley.
"Sure, I will," Cassilly replied when asked about a retrial. "The evidence is there. It's not going to be easy, but we will retry him."
Plitt's opinion cited standard instructions given to the jury by the late Judge Albert P. Close, who presided at Quickley's trial, noting at the conclusion of the instructions, Judge Close told the jurors: "You are judges, judges of the facts and the law."
Victim shot twice
Quickley, who was 16 at the time, was convicted of killing an Edgewood furniture store owner, Clarence Miller, in a robbery. His younger brother, Kim Darnell Quickley, then 15, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and a third teenager, Ronald L. Smith, who was 17, also pleaded guilty, according to newspaper archive accounts of their trials and state court records. All three received life sentences.
According to newspaper accounts of the crime, the victim, who was 69, was shot once between the eyes and once in the back of the head during a robbery of his Center Furniture store off of Edgewood Road on Sept. 27, 1979. He died 11 days later. Police said $36 and three television sets were taken.
On May 5, 1980, a Harford County Circuit Court jury convicted Bryan Quickley of felony murder, robbery with a dangerous and deadly weapon and use of a handgun in the commission of a felony. Judge Close sentenced him to life imprisonment for felony murder and five years for the handgun conviction, to run consecutively. He did not impose a sentence for the robbery conviction, Plitt noted in his review of the case. The Court of Special Appeals later upheld the murder and handgun convictions, but reversed the robbery conviction.
In a footnote to his opinion, Plitt noted that Quickley was represented at his trial by William O. Carr, who has since become a Circuit Court judge and is the county's chief administrative judge. The prosecutors were John Dunnigan, who later served nearly 30 years as a judge of the District Court before retiring earlier this year, and the late Arthur F. "Frank" Carven, who went on to serve as a top gubernatorial advisor on criminal law matters and as the chief attorney for the Harford County government.
Prior to Plitt's ruling granting him a new trial, Bryan Quickley had failed in previous attempts to seek post conviction relief and a new trial, according to Plitt's opinion.
Kim Quickley had a sentence modification hearing in July before Harford Circuit Court Judge Angela Eaves, who reduced his sentence to life with all but 40 years suspended, according to court records and the Office of the Public Defender for Harford County. He has since been released from prison, according to the Department of Corrections records.
Smith, who was 17 at the time of the crime, remains incarcerated in the state corrections system. Because Smith and Kim Quickley pleaded guilty to the Miller killing, they could not seek new trials under the Unger ruling.
Cassilly said he did not object to Kim Quickley being released from jail.
"I'm not too bothered about it," the chief Harford prosecutor said. "There is no real proof he knew his brother was going to kill somebody."
Other cases affected
Bryan Quickley is one of four Harford County men convicted of murders committed in the 1970s who has sought a new trial under the controversial Court of Appeals ruling in the case of Merle Unger, convicted of killing an off-duty Hagerstown police officer in 1977, after Unger's lawyers successfully argued that standard instructions given by judges at the time left jurors a choice of disregarding the concept of reasonable doubt in determining whether to convict. Although Unger was retried and convicted again in June, the Court of Appeals decision has unleashed a flood of similar successful petitions for new trials around the state.
Cassilly has vowed to retry all the Harford cases that have been affected by the Unger ruling. Prosecutors in some jurisdictions, most notably Baltimore City, have released a number of convicted murderers under division of corrections supervision, saying they felt it would be difficult to reconvict them after so many years.
The other Harford cases involved in the Unger ruling include Peter Sutro Waine, who was convicted of murdering an Abingdon couple in 1977 and has been granted a new trial by Plitt, and John Henry Smith, who was convicted of setting a fire at Gene's Bar near Forest Hill in 1972 that killed two young women sleeping above the business. Smith will have his petition for a new trial heard in December in Cecil County, where he was originally convicted.
Rodney L. Stevenson, convicted of murder in the 1967 shooting death of an Aberdeen cab driver, had an Unger hearing before Harford Circuit Judge Stephen Waldron in late June. As of Tuesday, Waldron had not issued his opinion, according to online court records.
Also granted a new trial earlier this year, by Judge Eaves, was James Jeffrey Vernon who was convicted of first-degree rape and daytime housebreaking in 1978.