SNOW HILL – A high-profile murder case from Cambridge dating back to 2004 has been moved to Worcester County after the state’s Court of Appeals overturned a conviction and life sentence in Dorchester County Circuit Court in 2006 and granted the defendant a new trial.
In 2006, a Dorchester County jury found Richard Lavonte Blanks, now 41, of Cambridge, guilty of first-degree murder in the strangulation death of Tyshika Askins in June 2004, but the defendant appealed the conviction on the grounds the lower court erred in allowing prosecutor’s line of questioning that invaded his attorney-client privilege. Last November, the state’s Court of Appeals upheld the appeal and overturned the earlier conviction, remanding the case back to the Circuit Court level for a new trial.
Because of the high-profile nature of the case and the improbability of a successful conviction in Dorchester County a second time, the case was transferred to Worcester County for a new trial. The case opened on Monday in Snow Hill with a motions hearing with the trial laid in for five days in Worcester County Circuit Court beginning this week.
According to the facts of the case, Askins was found dead in her Cambridge home on June 7, 2004, the victim of a beating and strangulation. The father of the victim’s 2-year-old son discovered the body when he went to her residence after she failed to pick up her son as planned, but he was cleared as a suspect when his DNA did not match evidence collected at the crime scene. The investigation then focused on Blanks, who was dating the victim’s friend at the time and later admitted being at the residence on the day of the murder.
Detectives collected DNA evidence from under the victim’s fingernails, suggesting the victim had put up a fight. Detectives also collected fingerprints from an orange juice container left open on the kitchen counter in the victim’s home, which would later prove to be a important piece of evidence.
It wasn’t until Blanks applied for a job requiring fingerprinting that the evidence collected from the orange juice container began to figure prominently in the investigation, court reports indicate. When Blanks’ fingerprints were entered in a national database, detectives were able match them with the fingerprints on the orange juice container, placing him at the crime scene around the time of the murder. Investigators were then able to match Blanks’ DNA with samples taken from under the victim’s fingernails.
At his original trial in Dorchester County in 2006, Blanks testified he did go to the victim’s residence on the day of the murder to inquire about the whereabouts of his girlfriend, but left after a brief discussion with the victim. Blanks testified he poured himself a glass of orange juice from the container and left the container on the kitchen counter, taking the glass with him. He could not, however, explain how his DNA got under the victim’s fingernails.
After a six-day trial in Dorchester in 2006, a jury convicted Blanks of first-degree murder and first-degree assault charges and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, his attorney appealed the conviction, asserting the lower court erred in allowing the prosecution to undermine Blanks’ credibility by embarking on a series of questions about when and where the suspect told his defense attorney about his involvement in the murder of Askins.
Dorchester County prosecutors argued during the appeal the line of questioning was not reason enough to overturn the murder conviction and that the physical evidence was more than sufficient to convict Blanks. However, the state’s Court of Appeals last November agreed the line of questioning during the original trial violated the defendant’s attorney-client privilege.
“The state has not carried its burden of demonstrating that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” the opinion reads. “Certainly, the state presented a strong case against the petitioner, including in particular the DNA and fingerprint evidence. Moreover, the state offered evidence countering the petitioner’s testimony that he and Ms. Askins had been involved in an affair. The strength of the state’s case, however, made it all the more important to the defense that the jury believe the petitioner’s testimony.”
For that reason, the high court upheld Blanks’ appeal and remanded the case to the Circuit Court level for a new trial.
“The state has every right to challenge a criminal defendant’s credibility through vigorous cross-examination,” the opinion reads. “The state has no right, however, to effect that goal through improper means. In this case, the state undermined the petitioner’s credibility by the improper means of invading his attorney-client privilege. The court’s error in allowing such cross-examination was not harmless. Consequently, the petitioner is entitled to a new trial.”
For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the amount of publicity surrounding the original trial and the improbability of finding a second jury in Dorchester County without at least some knowledge of the incident, the case was transferred to Worcester County Circuit Court for a new trial, which was scheduled to get underway this week.