Judge Denies Convicted Killer’s Bid For New Trial; Motion Rejects Misconduct Charge

SNOW HILL — Over 16 years after beating a man to death with a tent spike in the Inlet parking lot, convicted killer Robert Sutton, Jr. will not be getting a new trial after a Worcester County Circuit Court judge last week ruled unfavorably on his bid for post-conviction relief.

Sutton was found guilty of first-degree murder by a Worcester County Circuit Court jury in 2000 for the beating death of Thomas Lynch at the Inlet parking lot near the Springfest tents in April 1999 and was sentenced to life in prison. Over the last 16 years, Sutton has filed multiple appeals and bids for new trials, the latest coming in a post-conviction hearing in Snow Hill in December. Retired Judge Dale Cathell presided over that hearing and withheld his opinion at the close of the proceedings.

Last week, Cathell issued his statement of reasons and order of the court, denying Sutton’s motion for post-conviction relief and likely ending his last attempt at gaining a new trial. In his findings, Cathell held Sutton’s post-conviction bid failed to meet the two-pronged test established in the Supreme Court case Strickland v. Washington.

In the bid for a new trial, Sutton cited 15 allegations of prosecutorial misconduct ranging from the collection and presentation of evidence at trial to coercing witnesses and from shaky warrant service to failing to conduct forensic studies. He also cited 37 allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel, which was somewhat ironic because he fired his public defender at the close of the state’s case and continued on as his own attorney against the advice of the sitting judge. Cathell carefully dissected each of Sutton’s allegations and came away with the same conclusion in every example.

“The petitioner bears the burden of proof during a post-conviction proceeding,” the opinion reads. “The only evidence that the petitioner submitted is an uncorroborated, self-serving statement. Therefore, the petitioner has failed to satisfy the Strickland test for this allegation of error.”

It was a message repeated in Cathell’s report as the judge dissected each one of Sutton’s dozens of claims in the post-conviction proceeding and bid for a new trial.

Around 6:30 a.m. on April 30, 1999, Lynch’s body was discovered in the Inlet parking lot near the large tents that had been erected for the Springfest celebration that year. Police that morning also discovered near the Lynch’s body a large metal tent stake, which appeared to be covered with blood. The trail of evidence eventually led to Sutton, who later admitted killing Lynch in a botched robbery attempt after a sordid night of drinking and other illicit activity.

Sutton was eventually charged with first-degree murder in the death of Lynch and a Worcester County Circuit Court jury convicted him after a wild trial during which Sutton abruptly dismissed his public defender. Sutton was ultimately sentenced to life in prison for the beating death of Lynch in the Inlet parking lot that night, but he later challenged the conviction in the state Court of Special Appeals and Court of Appeals and was denied at every turn.

In the years since, Sutton has had plenty of time to prepare his 15 allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and 37 allegations of ineffectiveness of counsel, but Cathell dismissed each in turn, and while the individuals allegations are too lengthy to enumerate, some stood out in the judge’s order denying post-conviction relief. For example, Sutton alleged the state was remiss in not conducting forensic studies on some of the evidence, but he had admitted killing Lynch with the tent spike to witnesses and in front of the jury.

“Upon review of the trial transcript, the court has found no evidence in the testimony that the state completed forensic testing in this case,” the order reads. “Had the state completed forensic testing, it is unclear how the petitioner would have been prejudiced because the petitioner admits he struck the victim in the head with a metal stake.”

According to the report, Sutton told his girlfriend’s son he had beat a man and took his money, and later told his girlfriend he struck Lynch in the abdomen and once in the head in order to take his money.

“The petitioner admitted in trial, in front of the jury, that he struck the victim,” the judge’s order reads. “Therefore, no forensic testing was needed because the petitioner repeatedly admitted to different people and to the jury that he struck the victim with a metal object.”

During the trial in 2000, both the state and Sutton questioned Sutton’s girlfriend at the time of the murder, Tammy Lonsinger, at length. Sutton claimed Lonsinger’s particularly damning testimony against him was tainted because she feared repercussions from the police and the court. However, the judge dismissed that notion and said the jury basically ferreted out what was needed from Lonsinger’s testimony.

“Impeachment, and not suppression, was the proper method to attack Lonsinger’s testimony,” the report reads. “The jury heard Lonsinger’s testimony, the statement that she was afraid of the Ocean City Police officers and that she was afraid of being charged with a crime and potentially losing her children. The jury is the ultimate finder of fact and determined what testimony they found to be reliable.”

The facts of the case suggested Sutton struck and killed Lynch, dragged him to the Springfest tents and took his money. While Sutton admitted striking and killing Lynch with the spike, he disputed the robbery charge during trial and again during his post-conviction hearing, but again, Cathell ruled his claims did not hold up.

“The petitioner contends that the victim was not dragged to a tent, rolled over, and that no money was taken from the victim, and that the petitioner was not blood-spattered and that the testimony of Lonsinger and other witnesses asserting such were perjured,” the report reads. “The petitioner presents no evidence supporting the assertion, other than his uncorroborated, self-serving statement.”