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Eldersburg murder case heads to Maryland Court of Appeals

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- Original Credit: (HANDOUT)

The case of a man accused of opening fire into a crowd outside an Eldersburg tavern in 2012, killing one man and injuring another, will head back to court Thursday.

Jacob Bircher, who was living in Westminster at the time of the incident, was convicted in September 2013 of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder related to his firing 13 gunshots into a crowd of people outside the Harvest Inn and Cheers Lounge on July 13, 2012, killing David J. Garrett, 36, and injuring Gary Hale Jr., 26, both of Sykesville. In January 2014, he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

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But the conviction was overturned in February after a three-judge panel of the Court of Special Appeals ruled that Carroll County Circuit Court Judge J. Barry Hughes, who presided over the trial, made a mistake in the Carroll County Circuit Court case. Hughes, the appellate court said, erroneously instructed the jury regarding the legal concept called "transferred intent." The instruction, the court said, introduced a theory of intent that didn't fit the state's theory of the crime.

At Thursday's hearing, which will be held in Annapolis before the Court of Appeals' seven-judge panel, Carroll County State's Attorney Brian DeLeonardo will argue the state's case, a role traditionally filled by the attorney general's office. He will field questions from the judges regarding both Bircher's case and case law itself, he said.

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If the state's request to reinstate the conviction is denied, the case will go back to trial in Carroll County, DeLeonardo said.

Baltimore-based attorneys Steven Silverman and Erin Murphy, of the firm Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin and White, will argue on behalf of Bircher. In a Wednesday afternoon phone call, Silverman said he could not comment on the case. The firm also handled Bircher's successful appeal in the Court of Special Appeals.

The appearance of a state's attorney arguing on behalf of the state at the Court of Appeals is rare, DeLeonardo said. In order to argue the case, he said, he has been appointed "special assistant attorney general."

It's the first time since Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh took office in January that the office has designated a special assistant attorney general to argue a Court of Appeals case, according to David Nitkin, director of communications for the attorney general's office.

"We are pleased that it will be Mr. DeLeonardo," he wrote in an email.

But it won't be the last time a local prosecutor may be asked to help with criminal appeals.

"This is part of a new effort in the Office of the Attorney General to work collaboratively with prosecutors across the state to focus on areas where we all benefit from more resources and shared expertise," Nitkin wrote.

With the recent creation of four task forces — a task force specializing in crimes of exploitation, a task force for organized crime, an environmental enforcement task force, and a fourth to focus on fraud and corruption — it is something the office expects to utilize with increasing frequency in the future, he said.

DeLeonardo said he is prepared to argue on behalf of the state's case.

"It was an extremely serious case," DeLeonardo said of Bircher's 2013 murder trial. DeLeonardo had not been elected state's attorney when the case was originally prosecuted.

The chance to head to Annapolis to fight to reinstate the conviction is a good opportunity for the county, he said.

"You hope that it really impresses upon them how serious it is," he said.

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