High Court Reverses Murder Conviction

BERLIN – A Worcester County man found guilty on a second-degree murder charge and sentenced to 30 years for his role in the beating death of a woman in a rural area near Pocomoke in January 2008 could get a shot at a new trial after the state’s Court of Special Appeals last week overturned his conviction because his request for a new attorney prior to trial was not considered.

Kendall Irin Northam, now 21, of Pocomoke, was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree assault in September 2008 for his role in the beating death of Judy Wojcik in an apparent sex for drugs deal gone wrong in a rural area near Pocomoke in January 2008. Northam was later sentenced to 30 years in prison at a sentencing hearing in December 2008, but quickly appealed the conviction on a variety of issues.

Northam’s appeal was based on variety of issues, not the least of which was the trial court’s alleged error in not allowing the suspect to change lawyers prior to his trial in September 2008. According to the appeal, Northam first expressed a desire to discharge his public defender in February 2008 in the form of two letters to the court stating he wished to drop his counsel and have another assigned to his case.

Worcester County Circuit Court Judge Theodore Eschenberg acknowledged Northam’s request for a new attorney in March 2008, but “never explicitly ruled on it,” according to the appeal. Instead, the judge told Northam to be patient because it was a long process and his appointed public defender would have plenty of time to discuss his defense, according to the appeal.

Months passed as Northam’s trial neared, but his continued requests for new counsel fell on deaf ears, according to the appeal.

“Northam expressed concern his public defender hadn’t asked him what had happened or heard his side of the story,” the appeal read. “Six months later, and no contact with lawyer with his murder trial three weeks away, Northam again requested his counsel be discharged and a new lawyer be appointed to his case.”

In the days leading up to the trial, Northam submitted a motion for a change of venue, which also included a request for new counsel. On September 11, 2008, Judge Thomas Groton, who was now presiding over the case, denied the motion for a change of venue with a written order, but failed to address Northam’s request for new counsel. Later that month, Northam was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree assault and a pre-sentence investigation was ordered. In December 2008, he was sentenced to 30 years in jail.

Northam appealed the conviction with the request for new counsel issue as the centerpiece, but there were also issues with inconsistencies in the statement he gave to police following his arrest, and the statement used during trial. The appeal was heard on April 14 at the University of Maryland School of Law.

Less than two weeks later, the Court of Appeals last Tuesday ruled favorably on Northam’s appeal, reversing the conviction from the September 2008 trial. The Maryland Attorney General’s Office is now reviewing the high court’s opinion before making a decision about remanding the case back to the Circuit Court level for a new trial.

“When the trial court failed to even address Mr. Northam’s third request for a discharge, it blatantly violated the rule,” the appeal read. “The court should have inquired into Mr. Northam’s reasons for the request, including what had transpired, or not transpired, with his attorney during the six months between requests.”

A Worcester County grand jury indicted Northam and his co-defendants, Shawn Treherne, 23, of Bowie, Md., and David K. Justice, 20, of Pocomoke, charging them with first-degree murder and other charges related to the beating death of Wojcik, whose body was found by a trapper in a rural area near Pocomoke.

Early on in the investigation, detectives identified Treherne and Northam as suspects, but it was not until later that they started to believe Justice was involved. Justice was later arrested and charged for his role in the beating death of Wojcik. In his statement included in the appeal, Northam said Treherne and Justice were the aggressors in the attack and that he was essentially just along for the ride in the sex for drugs and money case.

However, according to court records, a concerned witness told detectives he allegedly spoke to Northam shortly after the murder was reported to the police and that Northam said himself, Treherne and another man picked up Wojcik and drove her to a wooded area where she was to perform sex acts for money and drugs. Northam allegedly told the witness a disagreement arose for some reason at which time they beat and kicked Wojcik and left her in the wooded area.

Treherne later entered an Alford plea to manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years in jail. Justice also entered an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years in jail, but five years was suspended from his sentence.