A former Frederick man sentenced to life in prison for the 1996 murder of a 15-year-old girl will have his case brought to the Supreme Court of the United States Friday.
A jury in 2017 found Lloyd A. Harris, then 54, guilty of the rape and murder of Stacy Hoffmaster. After Harris unsuccessfully appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, his attorneys filed a petition for writ of certiorari — a summary of the case and argument as to why the Supreme Court should hear it — alleging there was an egregious delay in indictment that affected Harris' ability to defend himself and, therefore, a violation of due process.
On Friday, the Supreme Court will not decide the fate of Harris' case, but it will hold a conference to decide whether to take on the case.
Hoffmaster disappeared Oct. 1, 1996, and her body was found Dec. 23 of that year in the woods near I-70 and East South Street in Frederick, according to previous News-Post articles. She was bound in yellow cord and covered with a blue blanket. Police said the materials came from a camp Harris built 50 yards from where the body was found.
Police investigated Harris shortly after Hoffmaster's death, but court records show he was not criminally indicted until Jan. 22, 2016. This lapse in time is the crux of the issue at hand for the MacArthur Justice Center, which has provided legal counsel to Harris. The justice center tackles cases across the country to serve as "an advocate to right the individual wrongs [people] have suffered and to address and attack the underlying systemic injustices," according to its website.
Attorney Amir Ali said the justice center was drawn to Harris' case for the constitutional implications.
"The Constitution guarantees criminal defendants due process of law," he wrote in an email Thursday. "In this case, the prosecution not only sat on stale evidence for two decades while exculpatory witnesses died, but during that period it also discarded key forensic evidence and recordings that would have been critical to Mr. Harris’s defense."
Representing the state in the case, counsel from the Maryland Office of the Attorney General was not immediately available to respond to requests for comment Thursday afternoon.
State's Attorney Charlie Smith recalls when the investigation got to the point in 2015 that he believed it warranted prosecution. Although Hoffmaster's death was considered a cold case for years, he said police continued to follow up on leads and go back over the details. He said the culmination of that work led to Harris' arrest in January of 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri.
“There was no one aha moment," Smith told the News-Post Thursday.
He believes the claims by Harris' counsel are without merit.
"He got a fair trial. He was convicted and sentenced according to the rule of law, and now, I think he's grasping at straws and trying to overturn that conviction," Smith said.
The justice center attorneys would disagree. In their 32-page petition, they argue the state discovered no new evidence in 16 years and affected Harris' ability to put forth an alibi years later. Also in that time, an "alternate suspect" died, a forensic analyst who investigated the crime scene died, witnesses became unavailable and "critical" evidence was lost, the petition reads.
It alleges the prosecution lost or destroyed evidence, such as a six-hour recorded interview with Harris and data for a test that determined how long before death the victim had sexual intercourse. The latter is relevant in that Harris told police he had sex with Hoffmaster before she disappeared, according to previous News-Post coverage.
Harris tried to get the charges against him dismissed, arguing the prosecutorial delay violated due process. To measure this, the court has a two-pronged test that requires the petitioner (Harris) to prove prejudice and prosecutorial misconduct; in this case, the idea the prosecution purposefully delayed the indictment for tactical gain, the petition states. Harris was unable to prove the latter, but his counsel argues only one prong needs to be proved.
Some courts in some states follow the two-pronged test for due process violations, while others adopt a "balancing approach" that focuses on prejudice, according to the petition.
"Balancing courts correctly recognize that when a defendant has shown that the prosecution’s excessive delay in pursuing charges has caused actual prejudice to his ability to defend himself, he has been denied due process of law," the petition reads.
Harris' former defense attorney said it is a virtually impossible feat to prove the prosecution delayed the indictment on purpose.
Public defender Matthew Frawley represented Harris through the prosecution. He is not involved in the Supreme Court consideration, but offered his perspective.
“I think the [the two-pronged test] as applied in Maryland is not fair to the defendant," Frawley said Thursday. “I think this is a rule the Supreme Court should review.”
In its 46-page brief opposing the petition to the Supreme Court, the Maryland Office of the Attorney General argues Harris said in lower courts that the two-pronged due process test applies to this situation.
At the time, the brief reads, there were reasons for the delay in indicting Harris and that new evidence had been found. What that new evidence was was not pointed out, as the prosecution was not required to proffer it under the two-pronged test, the brief states.
The brief further argues Harris would not prevail under the balancing approach anyway, because he would have to prove he suffered substantial, actual prejudice. What's more, the Office of the Attorney General suggests this issue is "neither so deep nor so consequential as to demand" the Supreme Court's review, according to the brief.
The Supreme Court agrees to hear an average of 100 to 150 of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review each year, according to its website. It is unknown when the court will announce its decision in the Harris matter.