The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has overturned the conviction of a Hagerstown teenager found guilty of solicitation to commit first-degree murder in the slaying of her father on Halloween 2008.
The 51-page opinion released last week found that Washington County Circuit Court Judge M. Kenneth Long Jr. erred in allowing evidence into trial of the actual killing of Billy Lee Black, who was stabbed to death behind his home on Oct. 31, 2008.
The court ruled that Black's case should either receive another hearing to determine if her case should be transferred to the juvenile justice system, or receive a new trial on the adult criminal charge.
Danielle Black, who was 15 at the time of her father's death, was convicted by a jury in 2009 of soliciting a classmate, Matthew Gray, to kill her father just weeks before he was murdered. Black, now 18, was sentenced to life in prison with all but 10 years suspended on the solicitation charge.
Gray testified at Danielle Black's trial that she asked him to "take care of" her father, but it was another man, Alec Scott Eger, who was convicted of the killing.
"The details of (Billy) Black's murder had little, if any, relevance to the question of whether Danielle solicited Gray to murder her father," according to the opinion from the state's second highest court. "We do not think it is possible to over-emphasize that Danielle was never charged in connection with her father's murder, nor was Gray.
"At trial, the State presented no evidence that Danielle had solicited Alec Eger, who confessed to her father's murder, to commit the crime. Instead, the jury was led to speculate that when Gray refused to kill Black, Danielle convinced Alec Eger to carry out the crime," the opinion said.
Describing Billy Black's murder during Danielle Black's trial was also prejudicial, the court ruled.
"Absent proof that Danielle was involved, it is highly prejudicial because it invites the jury to punish Danielle for a crime that the State cannot prove she committed," the opinion said.
Danielle Black's appeal, handled by the Appellate Division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, also claimed that she should have been granted a reverse waiver, which would have transferred her case from Circuit Court to the juvenile justice system.
"We agree that the trial court erred in denying Danielle's motion to transfer largely on the basis that (Billy) Black was murdered and that (the) appellant caused that murder," the opinion said.
Judge W. Kennedy Boone III presided at Black's May 2009 reverse waiver hearing.
The Court of Special Appeals also concluded that if Black's case is not "waived into juvenile court, she must receive a new trial."
Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Michael said the Maryland Attorney General's Office could ask the state's highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals, to review the decision of the Court of Special Appeals.
The three-judge panel rejected the defense claim that the evidence against Danielle Black was insufficient to support a jury convicting Black.
"We hold that the State adduced sufficient evidence from which a rational jury could conclude that Danielle solicited Gray to murder her father," the opinion said.
The judges also ruled that the juvenile justice system did not have exclusive jurisdiction in the case.
Eger, 22, of Hagerstown, entered an Alford plea in 2010 to first-degree murder in the death of Billy Black and was sentenced to life in prison with all but 25 years suspended, court records said. In an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit guilt, but acknowledges that prosecutors have sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction.
Eger told police he was prompted to confront Billy Black because of Danielle Black's claims that her father was abusive, according to the statement of probable cause filed by Hagerstown police.
Billy Black was found slumped against his truck, stabbed 20 times, Assistant District Attorney Gina Cirincion said at the time of Eger's sentencing.