High court upholds conviction in child abuse death

A man who has been tried three times in the death of a 3-year-old girl has been denied a chance at a fourth trial with a ruling by the state's highest court affirming his latest conviction for involuntary manslaughter and child abuse.

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that 31-year-old Erik Stoddard's conviction and 40-year prison sentence will stand in the 2002 fatal beating of Calen Faith Dirubbo in her Northeast Baltimore home. Police said the suspect was angry because he had been unable to toilet train the girl.

The high court found errors by the judge in the latest conviction, but ruled them "harmless under the circumstances of the case."

Wednesday's decision ends a case that has wound its way through the state's judicial system for nearly a decade, with two overturned convictions — once by a Circuit Court judge and the other by the Court of Appeals.

Stoddard was convicted of second-degree murder in March 2003 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The appellate court threw out the conviction in 2005, saying the trial judge had erred by allowing a statement by an 18-month-old into evidence even though the toddler did not take the witness stand.

A jury convicted Stoddard again of second-degree murder, in March 2007, and he was sentenced to 60 years in prison. But a judge threw out that conviction as well, ruling that the trial judge did not allow the defendant to question potential jurors about racial bias.

The judge made his decision based on an earlier Court of Appeals ruling that allows suspects to raise race as an issue even in cases where there is no apparent racial dynamic. The suspect, victim, defense attorneys, prosecutors and all of the witnesses were white. The jury was made up of eight black members and four white members.

Stoddard was convicted a third time in 2008, this time of involuntary manslaughter and child abuse. He appealed his conviction, arguing that the judge inappropriately forced him to decide to take the witness stand prior to the end of the defense case.

Stoddard had wanted to wait until his attorney finished questioning an expert witness before deciding whether to take the stand.

The Court of Appeals said the judge should not have forced him to make a decision before he was ready, but also ruled that the error did not harm his defense to the extent that a new trial would be required. The judge said Stoddard had used the same defense attorney and same expert at all three of his trials, so the testimony would not have influenced his decision about whether to testify.


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