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Judge denies motion for change of venue in fatal Edgewood arson case, supports defense motions on discovery

The trial for Bobbie Sue Hodge, who is charged with setting a fire that killed three of her housemates and injured two others in May, will remain in Harford County for the time being, despite the efforts of Hodge’s defense team Friday to convince a judge to order the proceedings moved to another location.

Judge Paul Ishak did approve, however, defense motions to compel prosecutors to provide more information about witnesses and the arson investigation during a hearing in Harford County Circuit Court Friday morning.

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Bobbie Sue Hodge, 60, is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and arson for allegedly setting the fire May 9 that killed three people inside an Edgewood townhouse where she had lived.
Bobbie Sue Hodge, 60, is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and arson for allegedly setting the fire May 9 that killed three people inside an Edgewood townhouse where she had lived. (Courtesy Harford County Sheriff' / BSMG)

“It is denying us our right to properly represent Ms. Hodge,” Assistant Public Defender Timothy Bahr said, referring to the state allegedly withholding addresses and phone numbers of some prosecution witnesses as well as information about prior criminal records of witnesses that the defense could use to “impeach” them, or question their credibility.

Bahr cited provisions of Maryland Rule 4-263, which covers the discovery process in Circuit Court. The two specific provisions he cited require prosecutors to provide, “without the necessity of a request” by the defense, names, addresses, phone numbers and written statements from witnesses, as well as a witness’ “prior criminal convictions, pending charges or probationary status,” which could be used to impeach them.

Those tasked with prosecuting Hodge have referred her public defenders to the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website for information on witnesses’ criminal records, according to Bahr.

“It’s, once again, defeating the purpose of the statute, of a rule, to just refer us to a website,” Bahr said.

Hodge, 60, appeared for the hearing wearing a black-and-white-striped Harford County Detention Center uniform — she is being held in the county jail without bond. She was represented by Bahr and Assistant Public Defender Belgin Palaz. Hodge sat quietly at the defense table and did not make any statements.

She was one of nine people who lived in a three-story townhouse in the 1800 block of Simons Court in Edgewood when the fire happened in the early morning hours of May 9, 2019. Hodge is accused of intentionally setting the blaze, which caused the deaths of Dionne Dominique Hill, 32, Ernest Milton Lee, 57 and Kimberly Ann Shupe, 47; all three lived on the third floor of the townhouse.

Two more residents, Mary Elizabeth Kennedy, 52, and Marquise St. John, 29, were injured — firefighters rescued Kennedy, who had burns on more than 70 percent of her body.

Hodge was arrested and charged in early July, after an investigation of nearly two months conducted by the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, the State’s Attorney’s Office, the Office of the State Fire Marshal and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Hodge’s jury trial is scheduled to begin in May. She currently faces 20 charges, including three counts of first-degree murder, three counts of second-degree murder, four counts of attempted second-degree murder, first and second-degree arson, four counts of first-degree assault and four counts of second-degree assault, according to online court records.

Assistant State’s Attorney Angela Diehl, who appeared with fellow prosecutor Timothy Doory, rebutted the defense’s motion on discovery evidence. Diehl said she is not aware of any of the state’s witnesses who have records that would make them impeachable.

Regarding contact information for witnesses, Diehl said defense attorneys can contact any first responders scheduled to testify through the publicly available addresses and phone numbers of their respective agencies.

She expressed concern about releasing contact information for civilian witnesses, such as those who survived the fire.

“Frankly, they are fearful,” Diehl said.

Prosecutors try to protect such witnesses, “especially in murder cases where retaliation is an issue,” she said.

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Diehl said she would be willing to ask civilian witnesses if they want to talk with Hodge’s defense team, although it is up to those witnesses if they want to be interviewed.

“If the court mandates it, obviously we’ll follow that mandate,” she told Ishak.

Ishak noted there can be classes of witnesses, to which Bahr agreed. He stressed that “we’re entitled to phone numbers, addresses, [for] each and every individual witness,” though.

“We still need to investigate the case,” Bahr said.

Ishak ordered that prosecutors work with defense attorneys and reach out to individual witnesses to see if they want to be interviewed as part of the defense’s pretrial investigation. The judge emphasized that the defense attorneys cannot share witnesses’ contact information with anyone else, though.

Any witnesses who do not want to talk with the public defenders, “that’s their prerogative,” Ishak said.

The judge denied a motion by Palaz, the second public defender for Hodge, to move the trial to another venue. Palaz expressed concern that past coverage of the case in local and national media would make it difficult to select an impartial jury in Harford County.

“We do anticipate there will be more pretrial publicity,” she said.

Diehl, in her rebuttal, said there has not been coverage of the case since July — when Hodge was arrested — plus it is the defense’s burden to show how media coverage has prejudiced potential jurors.

Ishak denied a motion earlier in the week by defense attorneys for Naeshawn Perry, who is charged in the 2017 homicide of 15-year-old Maleigha Solonka, to move Perry’s trial to another county. His public defender also cited pretrial publicity and threats against Perry — that trial was postponed from October 2019 to March after too few jurors could be selected in the fall.

The voir dire process of selecting jurors in Hodge’s case has not happened yet, though, and Ishak said he thinks “it is a bit premature, at this point,” to consider a change in venue.

“The voir dire process is a way to weed out, if you will,” people who could not be impartial from the jury pool, Ishak said.

The judge noted that he is willing to revisit the matter, “without prejudice,” should the need arise.

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