A man in prison for killing his ex-girlfriend will get a new trial, a Maryland appeals court ruled Friday, the second time this week the justices have tossed out high-profile convictions in which the victims were 20-year-old Baltimore women.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals found that a Baltimore circuit judge improperly blocked Christopher Rather’s attorneys from questioning prospective jurors at his 2019 trial for stabbing and choking Jasmine Pierce-Morris, 20, at Reginald F. Lewis High School. Maryland’s second-highest court used the same reasoning two days earlier to grant a new trial to Marco Holmes, who is serving a 50-year sentence for shooting girlfriend Tonja Chadwick to death in 2017.
It’s the latest case overturned in the wake of an appellate ruling in the case of Kazadi v. State, which found judges had wrongly prevented defense attorneys from asking certain questions during the jury selection process.
Rather’s conviction followed a particularly gruesome trial in which jurors were told that Pierce-Morris suffered a fractured skull, had been stabbed repeatedly in the neck and had been strangled during an attack in June 2018, according to the autopsy. A neighbor walking her dogs found the woman slumped on the bleachers of the practice football field at the high school. Pierce-Morris had been beaten and bound with ropes.
A jury found Rather guilty of second-degree murder, and he was sentenced to 43 years in prison.
That conviction has been vacated now because of a judge’s decision during jury selection. Rather’s attorneys attempted to ask if any prospective juror would be unable to follow the court’s instructions on what constitutes reasonable doubt, along with questions about whether they would penalize Rather if he decided not to testify at trial. Baltimore Circuit Judge Jennifer Schiffer did not allow the questioning.
Since the trials of Rather and Holmes, Maryland’s appeals courts have ruled that any defendant who was not allowed to ask those questions must be granted a new trial.
The family of Pierce-Morris could not be reached for comment on the prospect of a new trial.
Rather and Pierce-Morris had been prom dates, according to testimony from the trial. Police said they found that she was carrying a picture of Pierce-Morris and Rather from their prom. Prosecutors described Rather as a jilted lover, and one of Pierce-Morris’ friends said that Rather had become obsessed. She was trying to avoid Rather, according to police.
Pierce-Morris had been reported missing the night before when she didn’t show up for her overnight shift at the Amazon warehouse. After her mother filed a missing-person report, detectives found text messages that were sent to a friend in which Rather and Pierce-Morris had arranged to meet at the football field to talk.
“Soooo, Chris wanted to talk to me today right. I’m meeting him at this football field. I think this goin be our last conversation,” she texted a friend. “He told me he was leaving, might be going to California or Hawaii. Imma find out when he get here but ain’t that good news?!?”