A Baltimore judge granted a mistrial in a murder case, saying Montrelle Braxton's attorney was so ineffective that he ordered a new trial — and threatened to throw the attorney in jail.
But that same defense attorney then used the decision to get Braxton's charges dismissed altogether.
Circuit Judge Julie Rubin dismissed the murder charge against Braxton on July 28, ruling that Braxton would face double jeopardy if he were put on trial again for the killing of Tarvis Briscoe, who was stabbed 35 times in May 2014.
That ruling followed Chief Judge Alfred Nance's decision to rule a mistrial in Braxton's case because he felt assistant public defender Deborah K. Levi had been "disrespectful" to the point that the jury would hold it against her client.
Rubin said Nance had failed to explain why there wasn't a less severe alternative to granting a mistrial, and said Nance hadn't leveled any accusations that Levi didn't represent her client with "vigor."
"I do not relish the position in which I find myself, rendering a decision such as this regarding a colleague's actions, taken based on his observations and understanding of the law," Rubin said. "But here I find myself nonetheless."
The decision set free a man accused of murder and was the latest rebuke of Nance, a judge since 1997 who is known for a stern courtroom manner.
Nance was reprimanded in 2001 for "undignified" and "demeaning" ways toward women, after four female prosecutors complained that he had an "explosive temper" and made inappropriate comments about their appearance.
In 2004, he was accused of massaging a young prosecutors' shoulder and criticizing the way a prospective judge wore a yarmulke. He faced a rare public hearing on those charges, which were eventually dismissed. He was re-elected to a second 15-year term in 2014.
Braxton has prior convictions for burglary, but no violent crimes. An assault case in 2014 was placed on the "inactive" docket by prosecutors.
Reached for comment, Levi said she was "happy with the result, however we got there, because Mr. Braxton is innocent."
Nance, through a clerk, declined to comment.
Tiesha Briscoe, 29, the victim's daughter, said Tuesday that the ruling left her "upset, angry, confused, and nervous now, because who knows what he's capable of, if he's capable of doing that to someone else."
Briscoe said her father was a bail bondsman and well known and liked in his neighborhood.
A spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office said prosecutors were gathering materials for the attorney general's office, which would file any appeal on their behalf.
At trial, Assistant State's Attorney Robin Wherley told jurors that Briscoe and a woman were in her apartment on May 7, 2014. The woman was in a bathroom when she heard a thump, looked into the room and saw a "figure" hunched over Briscoe "appearing to be doing something to him."
She ran out of the apartment and called 911. The responding officers found Briscoe dead from multiple stab wounds.
A month later, the woman told police that her baby's father called her and admitted that he had stabbed Briscoe.
"She asked … why did you stab him so many times? And he told her, 'I don't know. I only remember the first one. I blacked out after the rest,'" Wherley told jurors. " 'I did it for us. I did it for you because I love you.'"
Levi told jurors that the woman had children with multiple men, and the night of the murder had texted one named "E.J." and let him know where she was and that she had cheated on him. Levi said police never tried to find "E.J."
Levi also said the woman with Briscoe should have been treated as a suspect, but wasn't, and that 16 DNA samples were taken from the scene, none of which matched Braxton. The woman with Briscoe later recanted her testimony and refused to come to court.
Briscoe "was a father. He was an employee. He was a human being who deserved better," Levi said. She said the police investigation "just wasn't an investigation worth anything."
Before the trial began, Nance chastised Levi for what he said was hovering over her client like a "mother hen." During trial, Nance said Levi had been disrespectful, acted like a "youngster," attempted to improperly introduce evidence, and engaged in what he called "sleight of hand," according to Rubin. Nance said he had observed members of the jury grimacing.
"The question that this court poses is whether or not its decision will be based on the evidence, or whether or not the jury's decision will be based on their interpretation and evaluation of [the defendant's] representation," Nance said.
Nance had held Levi in contempt during a bench conference and threatened to arrest her, and later said he intended to sentence her to a weekend at the Detention Center "so that she could live among those that she supposedly represents."
After declaring a mistrial, Nance decided to quash the contempt order.
Levi's next move was to file a motion with the new judge assigned to the case — Rubin — to argue that Braxton would face double jeopardy.
In Rubin's evaluation of the trial transcripts, she said, Nance had frequently sustained, or agreed with, Levi's objections, and made only one "oblique" reference to a specific example of something Levi had done wrong.
Nance "didn't find that defense counsel had failed to defend Mr. Braxton, did not find she had failed to confront evidence with vigor or to enter obvious or necessary evidence, or failed to object when appropriate," Rubin said.
Rubin said she scoured court decisions for similar cases where a mistrial was declared by a judge on the basis of ineffective counsel, and found a "dearth" of similar instances. She said she had no choice but to set Braxton free.