Maryland appeals court OKs judge calling cut dreadlocks ‘destruction of evidence’

Maryland’s highest appeals court has ruled a trial judge appropriately told a jury they could consider a defendant’s cutting his dreadlocks as destruction of evidence.

Robert Rainey was convicted of first-degree murder for a 2017 shooting in Baltimore. An eyewitness described Rainey as having shoulder-length dreadlocks. When police arrested Rainey, his mug shot showed him with hair closely cropped.

Rainey was convicted of first degree murder, use of a handgun in a violent crime and illegal possession of a gun by a convicted felon. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2018, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction.

In June, Rainey’s attorney told Maryland’s Court of Appeals that while prosecutors can suggest jurors consider why a suspect cut his hair, a judge calling it destruction of evidence implies the defendant is guilty of a crime.

Thursday, in its opinion affirming the judgment of the court of special appeals, the seven-judge panel said conditions had been met for the trial judge to give the destruction or concealment of evidence jury instruction.

In Maryland, “Any consciousness of guilt jury instruction requires the State to provide ‘some evidence’ to support a chain of four inferences connecting the destruction or concealment of evidence to actual guilt,” the panel concluded.

In addition, citing an earlier appeals court ruling, the panel said the judge was not required to spell out the four inferences to jurors: “The circuit court was not required to articulate its reasoning for giving a destruction or concealment of evidence jury instruction on the record.”

The court’s opinion did say the instruction could have been worded better: “It would have been more precise for the circuit court to have tailored the consciousness of guilt instruction to specifically describe a change in appearance instead of a destruction or concealment of evidence.”

However, the panel said “the given instruction was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because the jury understood that the instruction referred to the act of cutting dreadlocks.”

The panel encouraged the state’s jury instruction committee “to draft a model jury instruction regarding this point.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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