Lawyers for Sean Urbanski, who stabbed Lt. Richard Collins III to death in 2017 at a bus stop on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus, have asked a state appeals court to overturn the conviction and order a new trial.
In a brief filed in Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals — the second-highest appeals court in the state — Urbanski’s lawyers argued his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated, depriving him of free speech and due process.
Urbanski, 25, was sentenced to life in prison in January 2021, although Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Hill left open the possibility of parole.
Collins, a Black man, was stabbed three days before he was set to graduate from Bowie State University. Urbanski is white.
Urbanski “was tried as a racist,” wrote his attorneys Michael Lawlor, Gwendolyn Waters, John McKenna and William Brennan in their brief, which was filed Tuesday. Brennan and McKenna represented Urbanski at trial.
The defense said the trial judge should not have allowed jurors to see or hear about racist memes found on Urbanski’s phone, because there was no nexus between the racially offensive material on the phone and the murder.
“The State produced no evidence that [Urbanski] ever made racist statements, or held racist views. Rather, the State maintained that because [Urbanski] had racist memes on his phone, and because he assaulted a Black man, it followed that he had a racist motive and intent on the night of this crime and acted with that motivation,” wrote the defense attorneys.
In addition, after throwing out a hate crime charge, because prosecutors had failed to show Urbanski stabbed Collins specifically because Collins was Black, the defense said the judge should have declared a mistrial, rather than allowing jurors to consider guilt or innocence on the murder charge.
“It was only at the close of evidence that the trial court failed to show a nexus between the stabbing and the memes. It was, by then, too late. The memes had already been presented to the jury. Over and over again, throughout the trial, the State demonized [Urbanski] as a racist, suggesting he was motivated by hate, despite the lack of evidence to support this claim,” the lawyers wrote.
Prosecutors argued to jurors on the final day of the trial that racist memes found on Urbanski’s phone showed he had “poisoned” his mind with white supremacist propaganda before he stabbed Collins, who was waiting with a friend at a campus bus stop in the early hours of May 20, 2017.
“The phone is a true window to a person’s mind,” prosecutor Jonathon Church told jurors, adding that the memes showed Urbanski “dehumanized” Black people.
Urbanski’s lawyers claim the judge’s decision to admit the memes as evidence “relieved the State of its burden of proof as to the elements that separate first-degree murder from second — willfulness, premeditation and deliberation.”
During the trial, Urbanski’s defense attorneys never disputed that the former University of Maryland student stabbed Collins, but they claimed it had nothing to do with race and asked the jury for a verdict of second-degree murder. They argued Urbanski was “stupid drunk” at the time of the stabbing and too intoxicated to form the premeditation necessary for first-degree murder.
“That issue was easily overshadowed by the injection of First Amendment speech,” Urbanski’s attorneys wrote. He “was forced to try to prove that he was not a racist, or at least that the stabbing was not racially motivated, when the racially offensive materials should never have been a part of the trial.”
Urbanski is currently serving his life term in Jessup Correctional Institution.