Lawyers representing a former University of Maryland student charged with fatally stabbing a black student on the College Park campus last year have asked the court to dismiss a hate-crime charge, saying it violates the First Amendment.
“The evidence the State intends to introduce has no nexus to the alleged criminal act of first-degree murder,” argue William C. Brennan Jr. and John M. McKenna in a motion filed with the Prince George’s Circuit Court last week. “In other words, the evidence has no substantive or temporal connection with the killing that took place in this case.”
Brennan and McKenna represent former Maryland student Sean Urbanski who is charged with first-degree murder and a hate crime in the May 2017 stabbing death of Army 2nd Lt. Richard Collins III, a visiting black student from Bowie State University.
At issue is evidence from Urbanski’s phone that his lawyers said is “particularly offensive,” “extremely prejudicial” and “highly inflammatory.” The evidence includes “meme” texts and group messages as well as Urbanski’s following of a Facebook group called “Alt-Reich: Nation,” in which members shared white supremacist memes.
David Mitchell, University of Maryland police chief, had described the Facebook page as “despicable,” and showing “extreme bias against women, Latinos, persons of Jewish faith and especially African-Americans.”
In previous pleadings, Urbanski’s lawyers argued that the evidence was irrelevant and not admissible.
Prosecutors had responded in court filings that the evidence was relevant because it established that Urbanski, who is white, had a “purposeful selection” of Collins as a victim over anyone else that night because Collins was African-American. It added that the evidence was part of a “chain of events leading to the murder” and “elucidates a statement uttered by the defendant just before he stabbed Mr. Collins.”
Collins had been visiting with two friends at College Park in May 2017 when Urbanski approached them near a campus bus stop, according to charging documents. Collins was the only African-American of the group. The documents allege that Urbanski told Collins to "Step left, step left if you know what's best for you.” Collins refused, and Urbanski stabbed him in the chest, according to the documents. Urbanski is charged with first-degree murder and a hate crime.
Judge Lawrence V. Hill Jr. was scheduled to review motions related to the hate-crime charge Tuesday, but the hearing was rescheduled to Dec. 17.
Families of Urbanski and Collins waited for hours Tuesday in different areas outside the courtroom before the hearing was postponed to next month. Urbanski had been transported to the courthouse from a detention facility in Howard County to attend the hearing, though he did not appear in a courtroom.
The motions hearing was continued because the defense introduced recently filed motions that were not originally on the list to litigate during the motions hearing, according to John E. Erzen, spokesman for the state’s attorney. The court and the state needed time to review the new motions to be prepared for the hearing, he said.
Upon charging Urbanski with a hate crime last year, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks cited “lots and lots of digital evidence” taken from Urbanski’s phone and computer.
“All those things put together” led investigators to look into the incident as a hate crime, Alsobrooks said at a news conference in October 2017.
Collins, an ROTC student who had just been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, was less than a week away from graduating from Bowie State when he was killed.
Urbanski’s trial was set to begin in early July 2018, but a Prince George’s County judge granted a delay until January at the request of defense attorneys.
The case will be tried by a new administration in Prince George’s County. Alsobrooks was elected county executive this month. She’ll be replaced as state’s attorney by former Prince George’s Del. Aisha Braveboy.
Urbanski could receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole if convicted of the first-degree murder charge, and an additional 20 years if convicted of a hate crime resulting in death.