SNOW HILL – Pre-trial activity is starting to heat up in the West Ocean City murder case in April including a motion filed last week by the defense seeking a disqualification of the entire Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office citing a conflict of interest because an assistant state’s attorney acted as an interpreter for the defendant in the hours after the discovery of the crime.
Defense attorneys for Roberto Antonio Murillo, who remains behind bars after being charged with first-degree murder in the stabbing death of Cecilia Dea Parker, 56, in her West Ocean City home just a few doors down from his own residence on April 20, last week filed a motion to prohibit the state’s attorney’s office from prosecuting the case. If successful, the motion, which has not yet been ruled on, would disqualify Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel Todd and/or members of his staff from prosecuting the case and result in a special prosecutor from another jurisdiction to be brought in to act as an advocate for the state.
According to the motion to disqualify the State’s Attorney’s Office filed by defense attorneys E. Scott Collins and Marc A. Zeve last Monday, a potential conflict of interest arose when Assistant State’s Attorney Pam Correa, who had not been with the office long prior to the murder, acted as an interpreter to assist investigators in the interview of Murillo, a Honduran national who was identified early on as a suspect in the case.
“On or about April 21 at 3:50 p.m., Assistant District Attorney for Worcester County Pam Correa served as an interpreter and questioned the defendant regarding the death of Cecilia Parker,” the defense’s motion reads. “Attorneys for the defense intend to call Pam Correa as a witness regarding the statements that the defendant made during the interview, the consent forms and the Miranda warnings.”
Correa participated as an interpreter in the initial interviews conducted with Murillo at his home in Mystic Harbor in West Ocean City by the Worcester County Bureau of Investigation (WCBI). Although he had been identified as a suspect at the time of the interview, he had not been taken into custody nor had he been charged with the crime. It wasn’t until later that night, when he had been taken into custody, that he essentially confessed to the crime and provided detectives with a detailed account of his version of the hours leading up to the murder.
According to the motion, although Correa was acting as an interpreter at the time and not as an official member of the prosecution team – there was no official prosecution team at the time because no charges had been filed and Murillo had not been taken into custody – any incriminating statements made during the interview would have certainly found there way back to the state’s attorney’s office.
“There is no question that information gleaned from the assistant state’s attorney was shared with the entire state’s attorney’s office,” the motion reads.
The defense intends to call Correa as a witness at trial, presumably to call into question technical aspects of the initial interview such as if and when Murillo was Mirandized and if and when he consented to the interview in the first place. For that reason, a potential conflict exists in that Correa may be viewed by a jury as both a witness and a prosecutor.
“The jury may be confused where a prosecutor serves as both an advocate for the state and a witness,” the motion to disqualify reads. “The defendant will suffer prejudice where the prosecutor acts as both advocate for the state and witness, especially where Pam Correa’s testimony conflicts with that of the interpreter who later interviewed the defendant. Wherefore, the defendant respectfully requests that this court grant the motion to disqualify the state’s attorney’s office from appearing as an advocate for the state of Maryland in this case.”
Todd was quick to file a response to the motion to disqualify his office from prosecuting the case, acknowledging Correa did participate as an interpreter in the initial interview, but that it was not until much later that night that Murillo made statements in a separate interview incriminating himself in the crime.
“On or about April 21, Assistant State’s Attorney Pam Correa was used as an interpreter to assist WCBI in questioning Roberto Antonio Murillo, who lived diagonally across the street from Cecilia Parker, whose lifeless body had been found in her home earlier that day,” Todd’s official response to the motion reads. “That during that interview of the defendant in the defendant’s home and while he was not in custody, while Assistant State’s Attorney Pam Correa was serving as an interpreter, the defendant maintained his innocence.”
Todd’s formal response further states “that when the defendant made an incriminating statement later that night, it was done so at Barrack V of the Maryland State Police in Berlin, Md. and Assistant State’s Attorney Pam Correa was not present.”
Collins’ motion to disqualify the state’s attorney’s office in the case is interesting because of his unique relationship with Todd. Collins served as Deputy State’s Attorney under Todd for years and worked closely with him on dozens of high profile cases, which would appear to give each side an insight into how the other might proceed in the case. If the motion is successful, a special prosecutor could be brought in from anywhere else in the state, essentially becoming a wild card of sorts in the case.
It remains to be seen which way the judge in the case rules on the motion to disqualify the state’s attorney’s office, but it could come down to strict interpretation of Maryland Lawyers Rules of Professional Conduct, which both sides cite in their motions and counter-motions. The defense cites Rule 3.7 Lawyer as Witness, which states, among other things, “a lawyer shall not act as advocate at a trial in which the lawyer is likely to be a necessary witness unless the testimony relates to an uncontested issue,” or “the disqualification of the lawyer would work substantial hardship on the client.”
However, Todd cites a different section of the same rule in his response to the motion to disqualify his office which states “a lawyer may act as advocate in a trial in which another lawyer in the lawyer’s firm is likely to be called as a witness unless precluded from doing so by Rule 1.7 or Rule 1.9.” Rule 1.7 and Rule 1.9 deal with broader issues of conflict of interest.
There is tons of case law dealing with the disqualification of a prosecutor or an entire state’s or district’s attorney’s office because of a potential conflict of interest covering a wide variety of circumstances. One landmark case often cited in subsequent cases is the California Supreme Court’s ruling in People v. Eubanks, which appears to have merit in the Murillo case. The opinion, if utilized by the judge in this case, could be interpreted to go either way.
“A conflict of interest exists in the prosecution of a criminal case whenever the circumstances of the case evidence a reasonable possibility that the prosecutor’s office may not exercise its discretionary function in an evenhanded manner,” the opinion reads. “However, a conflict of interest warrants recusal only if the conflict is so grave as to render it unlikely that the defendant will receive fair treatment during all portions of the criminal proceedings.”