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Assault trial halted as questions arise about same-sex couples' rights

April 25, 2011|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com

The trial of a woman charged with assaulting her spouse came to a halt Monday in Washington County Circuit Court when the alleged victim invoked her spousal privilege not to testify, although it was unclear if that right exists for same-sex couples in Maryland.

It will be up to Assistant Public Defender Carl Somerlock and Assistant State’s Attorney Leon Debes to make the case before Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley as to whether the right accorded to heterosexual couples extends to the alleged victim, Sharron A. Snowden, in the state’s case against Deborah A. Snowden.

Asked by Debes if she remembered an incident on Dec. 10, 2010, Sharron Snowden replied, “Yes, and I wish to invoke my right not to testify against my spouse.”

Sharron Snowden, 39, and Deborah Snowden, 49, were married in August 2010 in Washington, D.C., where same-sex marriages are legal. Maryland does not permit same-sex marriages to be performed in the state; at issue is under what circumstances marriages from other jurisdictions are recognized.

“You have asked whether those marriages may be recognized under state law,” Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler wrote in response to a 2010 inquiry by State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. “The answer to that question is clearly ‘yes,’” Gansler wrote in the letter incorporated in Somerlock’s defense brief.

The key word in that response is “may,” Debes told Beachley. The state could recognize same-sex marriages, he said, through legislation, by an appeals court decision or when state agencies recognize out-of-state marriages on matters under their jurisdiction.

The Maryland General Assembly has not enacted legislation to recognize same-sex marriages, whether in-state or out-of-state, Debes said.

Beachley said he had not read the defense brief and state response because he believed the case was to be heard by another judge. He suspended the trial and said he needed a month to research the issue.

Deborah Snowden, of 10808 Vetra Lane in Williamsport, was charged by Maryland State Police with second-degree assault and reckless endangerment for allegedly threatening Sharron Snowden, formerly Sharron Saleem, the application for statement of charges said.

The incident was preceded the night before by an argument over Sharron Snowden receiving artificial insemination and a series of text messages from Deborah Snowden the next day that she refused to answer, the charging document said. Deborah Snowden threatened to kill Sharron Snowden with a knife, though there was no physical assault, the document said.

“It is worth us fighting for our rights as citizens of Maryland,” Sharron Snowden said after the trial was suspended. The women “expect to have the same rights” as heterosexuals, she said.

“We just felt like we were targeted” for prosecution, Deborah Snowden said.

“There are no formal prerequisites to recognition of an out-of-state marriage ... The general rule is that a marriage valid where contracted or solemnized is valid everywhere,” Gansler wrote in 2010. “The reason for this rule is that it is desirable that there should be uniformity in the recognition of marital status, so that persons legally married according to the laws of one state will not be held to be living in adultery in another state,” the letter stated.

“That’s an interesting point,” Beachley said, because adultery is illegal in Maryland.

Debes said that would not apply in this case because Maryland law states adultery involves a man and a woman.

“A married woman,” Somerlock added. Afterward, Somerlock said adultery is a misdemeanor that carries a $10 fine.

State employees also may receive benefits to cover partners to whom they are not legally married under Maryland law, Beachley said.

Beachley asked the attorneys if they knew of any similar Maryland cases.

“I’ve been unable to find any,” Debes told the judge.

“The marital privilege is not a fundamental right,” but created by the legislature, Debes said. It is not extended to common-law marriages from other states or to people who live together, regardless of gender, he told Beachley.

The state was prepared to call the investigating trooper, but if Sharron Snowden is allowed to invoke spousal privilege, the state will not be able to go forward with the case, Debes said.

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