Mahdi Lawson of Upper Marlboro Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison for Gun and Drug Offenses
GREENBELT, MD. – An Upper Marlboro thug who was charged with murder along with another local thugster and convicted killer, has been sentenced to prison by a Federal Judge for various drug and gun offenses while the murder rap looms in the future.
U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus sentenced Mahdi Lawson, 27, of 13952 Bishops Bequest Road, Upper Marlboro, Maryland, on Jan. 7, 2016, to 15 years in prison followed by three years of supervised release for being a felon in possession of a gun; possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine; and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense.
According to his plea agreement with the U. S. Attorney for Maryland, Rod Rosenstein, law enforcement officers executed a search at Lawson’s residence in Upper Marlboro and recovered a black semi-automatic handgun from a backpack in the living room, marijuana and crack cocaine from the bathroom and MDMA (ecstasy) from an organizer next to the bed in the basement.
Lawson admitted in his guilty plea that the handgun and drugs recovered from the residence belonged to him and that he had carried the firearm to conduct a drug transaction. Lawson had several previous felony convictions and was prohibited from possessing a firearm or ammunition.
On Oct. 7, 2015, Lawson was charged with assault in Prince Georges County Circuit Court. Trial for that charge is set for Jan. 25, 2016. Another criminal charge of assault by way of indictment by the Grand Jury is also pending trial for Jan. 11, 2016 in Prince Georges Circuit Court.
Lawson was charged with second degree assault on Feb. 3, 2015. In District Court on Sept. 30, 2015, Lawson was convicted of assault and sentenced to 10 years in prison with 7 years suspended and credit given for time served of 239 days. Either Lawson lied about his financial ability to pay for a private attorney or the public defender’s office simply takes the word of drug dealers about their cash flow and provided him representation in this case, paid by the taxpayers of Maryland. Jennifer Park of the Hyattsville Office of the Public Defender was Lawson’s attorney, according to court records. Prince Georges Police Officer Grant was the arresting officer.
Lawson and Benton charged with murder of Sharod Darnell James
UPPER MARLBORO, MD. — Prince Georges County Police reported that on Nov. 18, 2012, Lawson was charged with second-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder along with first-degree assault.
The Prince George’s County Police Department arrested a second suspect in the November 2012 murder of Sharod Darnell James. The suspect is identified as 23-year-old Joshua Jermaine Benton of the 4800 block of Benning Road in Southeast Washington.
On November 16, 2012, at approximately 11:50 pm, patrol officers responded to the 5600 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Highway for a report of a shooting. Upon arrival, they found James, of the 2200 block of Savannah Terrace in Southeast Washington, suffering from gunshot wounds. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
On November 21, 2012, officers arrested Mahdi Lawson, 24, of Bishops Bequest Road in Upper Marlboro in connection with this murder. Mahdi was charged with second-degree murder and related charges.
PG Police reported that the preliminary investigation suggests the murder is drug related.
Court filing details Lawson’s presence at murder scene
From The Washington Times on Nov. 20, 2012:
Court documents filed in the case indicate that Mr. Lawson called Mr. James to a Valero gas station, located at 5601 Martin Luther King Jr. Highway, for a drug deal. Mr. James arrived at the gas station shortly before midnight and the two talked inside the building, then walked outside to the parking lot. As the men talked in the parking lot,
Mr. James was shot multiple times. He died within the hour.
A Prince George’s County homicide detective states in the court documents that the two men were seen together on surveillance footage from the gas station and that Mr. Lawson’s cell phone records also place him at the scene.
Police searched Mr. Lawson’s home, in the 13000 block of Bishops Bequest Road, and recovered clothing that matched what he was wearing in the surveillance video. After he was arrested Sunday, court records state that he admitted to calling Mr. James “for a narcotic transaction and meeting him at the gas station during the time of the shooting.” The documents do not indicate whether or not he admitted to the shooting.
Lawson convicted of selling drugs in PG County jail
UPPER MARLBORO, Md. (WUSA9) — A Prince George’s County inmate has been convicted of possession and conspiracy to distribute marijuana inside the county jail.
Officials say, Mahdi Lawson, 26, of Upper Marlboro, is currently being held at the Department of Corrections on a first-degree murder charge.
Officials began investigating in February 2013 when they became aware that a former officer may have been smuggling contraband into the facility. The officer’s arrest in March of 2013 led to the discovery of Lawson as the inmate for which the officer had been smuggling drugs into the facility for.
Lawson was convicted of possession of marijuana, conspiracy to distribute marijuana, conspiracy to distribute a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) in a place of confinement and attempting to receive a CDS in a place of confinement.
Joshua Benton convicted of murder; conviction overturned and new trial ordered by Maryland Court of Special Appeals
The following is the time frame of the summary of the murder trial for Benton:
May 1, 2014 – At the Close of the State’s case, the States Attorney drops the charges of Armed Robbery and Conspiracy to Commit Armed Robbery.
States Attorney Angela Alsobrooks also dropped the charge of conspiracy use of a handgun in a violent crime.
May 5, 2014 — Verdict: Count 1 – First Degree Murder – Guilty Count 3 – Use of Handgun in a Crime of Violence – Guilty Count 4 – Conspiracy to Commit First Degree Murder – Guilty
On July 13, 2014, Prince Georges County Circuit Court Judge Jackson sentenced Joshua Benton to life in prison.
On August 31, 2015: Upon appeal to the Special Court of Appeals, the decision of the Circuit Court is reversed after the public defender’s office filed an appeal. A new trial for Benton is ordered.
The reason the Special Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Benton?
Circuit Court Judge Jackson failed to poll the jury for convicted felons. Therefore, the taxpayers will be providing a new trial again due to the error of the judge.
The Appeal by Benton to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals
From the court records:
Following a five-day jury trial in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County, Joshua Benton, appellant, was convicted of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and use of a handgun in the commission of a felony or crime of violence. The circuit court sentenced Benton to serve two consecutive life sentences for murder and conspiracy to commit murder and a consecutive sentence of 20 years for use of a handgun. He filed a timely appeal.
Benton raises three questions for our review:
- Did the trial court err in failing to propound Benton’s requested voirdire question, which inquired whether any member of the venire had been charged with or convicted of a serious offense, other than a traffic offense?
- Did the trial court err in admitting hearsay evidence?
- Was the evidence insufficient to sustain Benton’s convictions?
Because we agree that the trial court committed reversible error by failing to propound the requested voir dire question regarding whether the venire members had been convicted of a serious offense, and thus were statutorily disqualified to serve on the jury, we reverse Benton’s convictions and remand this case for a new trial.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Benton was charged with offenses arising from the death of Sharod James. The evidence presented at Benton’s trial, framed in the light most favorable to the State demonstrated that around 11:50 p.m. on the night of November 16, 2012, James was shot at a gas station on Martin Luther King Jr. Highway in Prince George’s County. The State theorized that Benton and his co-defendant, Mahdi Lawson, killed James because they believed that James had killed their friend, Matheno Nichols, in 2006.
Two witnesses, a driver and passenger of a nearby automobile, heard the gunshots while they were stopped at a red light near the gas station. They observed two men standing over another man in a dark area of the gas station lot. Although the witnesses were too far away to see the faces of the two men they saw, they believed that the men were African-American. The witnesses were also able to describe the assailants’ clothing to the police. The witnesses’ description of the assailants’ clothing was consistent with the clothing worn by Benton and Lawson in a surveillance video taken at the gas station on the night James was killed.
Telephone records indicated that, at around the time of the shooting, James received a call from a cell phone number used by Lawson. Steven Waytes, who had been incarcerated with Benton in the Prince George’s County Corrections Center while Benton was awaiting trial in 2013, testified that members of the public believed that James had killed Benton’s friend, Matheno Nichols.
The trial court allowed the admission of Waytes’s grand jury testimony that Benton admitted that he was at the gas station on the night James was shot, but that “the State had nothing on him.”
(James was charged with Nichols’s murder, but was acquitted by a jury.)
The court reviewed the briefs submitted by the Benton’s attorneys and the responses by States Attorney Alsobrooks. The Special Court of Appeals noted that the defense had submitted written requests to have all prospective jurors answer as to whether they had been a victim of a crime, have family members or themselves been charged with or convicted of a crime with a sentence exceeding six months.
From the ruling of the Special Court of Appeals in Benton’s opinion:
It is also possible that a potential juror might answer truthfully on the jury questionnaire that the person has no disqualifying convictions or pending charges, and then thereafter be charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment exceeding six months. E.g. Hunt v. State, 345 Md. 122, 140-41 (1997). As a practical matter, only voir dire questions will reveal disqualifying charges or convictions that occur after the jury questionnaire is submitted and before the potential jurors are called for service.
. [I]t is evident that voir dire questions regarding minimum statutory qualifications are not always “redundant and unnecessary.” In fact, our cases ruminate that the pre-voir dire processes of screening out disqualified jurors are not fail-safe. We are persuaded, and so hold, that it is in the better interests of justice to require trial judges to pose voir dire questions directed at exposing constitutional and statutory disqualifications when requested by a party.
Admission of Informant’s Testimony
We shall next briefly address the evidence issue raised by Benton because this issue is likely to arise again at Benton’s new trial.
During the direct examination of Waytes, the jailhouse informant who testified against Benton, the prosecutor elicited testimony indicating that the “word on the street” was that the victim, James, had killed Benton’s friend, Matheno Nichols, in 2006.
The court allowed the informant’s testimony, not for the purpose of proving that James killed Nichols, but to demonstrate what the informant, and arguably Benton, believed to be true.
Benton contends that the trial court erred by admitting evidence that James killed Nichols. He also asserts that the informant’s testimony constituted both inadmissible hearsay evidence and improper lay opinion testimony.
Even assuming that the admission of the informant’s testimony was erroneous, we would conclude that any error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt in the circumstances of this case.
On the third day of Benton’s trial, the detective who investigated Nichols’s death testified, without objection, that James had been arrested and tried for Nichols’s murder.
An appellate court “will not find reversible error on appeal when objectionable testimony is admitted if the essential contents of that objectionable testimony have already been established and presented to the jury without objection through the prior testimony of other witnesses.” Yates v. State, 429 Md. 112, 120 (2012) (citation omitted).
Moreover, “[o]bjections are waived if, at another point during the trial, evidence on the same point is admitted without objection.” DeLeon v. State, 407 Md. 16, 31 (2008) (citing Peisner v. State, 236 Md. 137, 145-46 (1964), cert. denied, 379 U.S. 1001 (1965)).
Even if Benton had not waived his arguments regarding the informant’s testimony, however, we would find no merit in his assertions that the evidence constituted either hearsay or lay opinion testimony.
“‘Hearsay’ is a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” Md. Rule 5-801(c).
Generally, hearsay evidence is not admissible, unless it falls within one of many exceptions. Md. Rule 5-802; see also Thomas v. State, 429 Md. 85, 96 (2012) (“Generally, statements made out of court that are offered for their truth are inadmissible as hearsay, absent circumstances bringing the statements within a recognized exception to the hearsay rule”) (quoting Su v. Weaver, 313 Md. 370, 376 (1988)).
In this case, the State did not offer the informant’s testimony that the “word on the street” was that the victim had killed Benton’s friend, to prove that James did, in fact, kill Nichols. The State offered the testimony to prove that he, and others – particularly others in the Kenilworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where Benton and his co-defendant lived – believed that James killed Nichols.
Because the State did not offer the informant’s testimony for “the truth of the matter asserted” within the meaning of Rule 5- 801(c), it was not inadmissible hearsay evidence. See, e.g., Ashford v. State, 147 Md. App. 1, 77 (2002) (reasoning that assertion was not hearsay because it was not offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted but to show effect of statement on defendant).
At trial, Benton objected to the informant’s “word-on-the-street” testimony on hearsay grounds alone. Because Benton did not object to the testimony on the ground that it was a lay opinion, he did not properly preserve that contention for appellate review. See Klauenberg v. State, 355 Md. 528, 541 (1999) (when specific grounds for an objection are proffered, even though not requested by court, the objecting party is deemed to have waived all other grounds).
Benton does not request plain error review on this ground. But even if Benton had preserved his objection, we would not agree that the informant’s testimony constituted improper lay opinion testimony in violation of Md. Rule 5-701.
The prosecutor never asked the informant if he had an opinion regarding who killed Nichols.
The prosecutor solicited the informant’s testimony regarding what he had heard, the “word on the street,” and what the informant believed to be true.
Sufficiency of the Evidence
In cases where this Court reverses a conviction, and a criminal defendant raises the sufficiency of the evidence on appeal, we must address that issue, because a retrial may not occur if the evidence was insufficient to sustain the conviction in the first place.
Ware v. State, 360 Md. 650, 708-09, cert. denied, 531 U.S. 1115 (2001) (citing Mackall -16- v. State, 283 Md. 100, 113 (1978)).
In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, an appellate court determines “whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979); see also Derr v. State, 434 Md. 88, 129 (2013); Painter v. State, 157 Md. App. 1, 11 (2004) (“[t]he test is ‘not whether the evidence should have or probably would have persuaded the majority of fact finders but only whether it possibly could have persuaded any rational fact finder’”) (citations omitted) (emphasis in original).
The appellate court thus must defer to the factfinder’s “opportunity to assess the credibility of witnesses, weigh the evidence, and resolve conflicts in the evidence[.]” Pinkney v. State, 151 Md. App. 311, 329 (2003); see also State v. Mayers, 417 Md. 449, 466 (2010) (“[w]e defer to any possible reasonable inference the jury could have drawn from the admitted evidence and need not decide whether the jury could have drawn other inferences from the evidence, refused to draw inferences, or whether we would have drawn different inferences from the evidence”) (citations omitted).
Circumstantial evidence, moreover, is entirely sufficient to support a conviction, provided that the circumstances support rational inferences from which the trier of fact could be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of the guilt of the accused. See, e.g., State v. Manion, 442 Md. 419, 431-32 (2015); Painter, 157 Md. App. at 11.
Benton contends that the evidence at his trial was insufficient to permit any rational trier of fact to find that he was complicit in the murder of Sharod James.
Benton asserts that there was no physical or testimonial evidence that established that he was the person who killed James.
At best, Benton suggests, the evidence was sufficient only to establish his presence at the gas station on the night James was shot. We disagree.
In addition to the substantial evidence that Benton and his co-defendant were present at the gas station around the time James was killed, the State presented the testimony of two eyewitnesses who, immediately after shots were fired, saw two men standing over a body in a dark part of the gas station wearing clothing similar to that worn by Benton and his co-defendant in contemporaneous surveillance videos.
The State also presented evidence indicating that Benton and his co-defendant had a motive to murder James, who they believed had killed their friend.
Under all the circumstances, we are persuaded that the evidence presented, viewed in the light most favorable to the State, could have led a rational trier of fact to reasonably conclude that Benton conspired with his co-defendant, Lawson, to murder Sharod James and that Benton and Lawson did, in fact, shoot and kill James on the night of November 16, 2012.
We conclude, therefore, that the evidence was sufficient to support Benton’s convictions.