Maryland’s second-highest court has ordered a new trial for the man convicted in the 2017 killing of Baltimore bartender Alex Wroblewski.
The Court of Special Appeals’ decision last week to reverse the conviction of Marquese Winston stems from questions his defense attorney wanted the judge to ask prospective jurors during the selection process known as voir dire. The judge declined.
Wroblewski, 41, was fatally shot outside a Royal Farms while walking home after his shift at The Rowhouse Grille in Federal Hill. He was a popular bartender well-known in his Locust Point neighborhood.
The killing shook residents in that part of South Baltimore, where violent crime is more rare than in other parts of the city.
Hundreds turned out to a vigil to mourn Wroblewski, who was nicknamed “Albo” and raised money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
The appeals court decision was difficult for Wroblewski’s family.
“Alex’s family and friends are hurt and outraged that a new trial is needed because of a technicality,” family friend and attorney Thiru Vignarajah said in a statement on the family’s behalf. “This is reopening terrible wounds. They waited a long time for justice for their son; they can wait a little longer. But the evidence of guilt at the original trial was overwhelming and they are confident that Alex’s killer will be convicted once again at a re-trial.”
Last year, a Baltimore jury convicted Winston of second-degree murder and multiple handgun charges. Winston’s girlfriend, Tonya Hayes, was found guilty of two gun charges.
Winston and Hayes were tried together. Winston was sentenced to 40 years. Hayes received a four-year sentence.
According to police reports and testimony from the trial, Wroblewski had stopped by the Royal Farms store on Key Highway to buy milk and cookies as he walked home from work at about 1:15 a.m. on Nov. 14, 2017.
Winston and Hayes pulled up to the store with her teenage daughter and her then-20-year-old son, Tivontre Gatling-Mouzon, in the car. Winston and Hayes went into the store, passing by Wroblewski.
As Wroblewski left the store and continued walking home, Winston and Gatling-Mouzon followed on foot. Surveillance video showed the two men pulling up their hoods as they walked. Hayes followed in their vehicle.
Gatling-Mouzon testified that there was no plan to rob Wroblewski, and that when he saw Winston pull out a gun, he ran back to the car. After an altercation, Winston fired one deadly shot at Wroblewski, prosecutors said.
Gatling-Mouzon reached a plea deal with prosecutors and was sentenced to eight years in prison in exchange for his testimony.
Prosecutors said they believed Wroblewski was targeted because he was intoxicated. Defense attorneys alleged Wroblewski was the instigator, and Winston testified he thought Wroblewski spit at him.
Winston and Hayes were arrested in Georgia shortly after the killing and were convicted by a jury last year. They appealed their convictions, citing issues including the voir dire questions and jury instructions. While the Court of Special appeals overturned Winston’s conviction, it upheld Hayes'.
The appeals court agreed with Winston’s argument that the trial judge should have asked certain questions of potential jurors after his attorney requested it.
During voir dire, Winston’s attorney requested that the judge ask prospective jurors whether they would hold it against the defendant if he exercised his right not to testify or present evidence. The attorney also asked that the judge tell prospective jurors to stand if they didn’t presume him to be innocent, or if they weren’t sure they would require the state to convince them of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. When the judge declined, Winston’s attorney objected.
The decision reversing Winston’s conviction cited a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling in a case called Kazadi v. State. The ruling in January held that a judge must, if an attorney requests, ask prospective jurors about concepts including the defendant’s right not to testify and the presumption of innocence.
“And because Kazadi applies to ‘any other cases that are pending on direct appeal when’ the opinion was filed, Mr. Winston gets the benefit of its holding,” the Court of Special Appeals opinion states.
In Hayes’ case, the Court of Special Appeals found that Hayes “failed to preserve this issue for appellate review” because her attorney did not object to the judge’s refusal to ask the voir dire questions when Winston’s did.
But Nancy S. Forster, the attorney handling Hayes’ appeal, wrote in a motion for reconsideration last week that Hayes “did, in fact properly object to the refusal to give these voir dire questions,” thus preserving the issue for appeal.
A spokeswoman for Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby referred questions to the Maryland attorney general’s office, which represents prosecutors in appeals. The attorney general’s office declined to comment Sunday.
Andrew I. Alperstein, a Baltimore defense attorney not involved in the case, said the Kazadi decision “opened up and expanded the questions that can be asked” of prospective jurors in Maryland.
“Maryland has historically been very limited in the questions that can be asked of prospective jurors,” he said. “Lawyers for a long time had been asking the appellate court to include broader questions, and they finally did through [the Kazadi ruling].”
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.