In what is viewed a groundbreaking case, a Worcester County first-degree murder conviction was upheld this week by the Maryland Court of Appeals after the high court ruled text messages between defendants were admissible in court.
On May 2, 2015, a Virginia couple dropped off their son at the Pocomoke home of Kevin M. Sewell, then 27, and his wife. Sewell was the child’s uncle and the couple had dropped the 3-year-old off at his house for an overnight visit. When the child was returned to the couple the following day at their home in Accomack County, he had suffered severe trauma to his head and abdomen along with other injuries and later died of injuries sustained while in his uncle’s care.
Sewell was later indicted on charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, first-degree child abuse-death and neglect of a minor. His wife Amanda Sewell, was also charged with first-degree child abuse-death and neglect of a minor. In September 2016, a Worcester County jury found Kevin Sewell guilty of first-degree murder and he was later sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Amanda Sewell was later sentenced to four years in jail for neglect of a minor.
Kevin Sewell appealed his conviction on the grounds prosecutors extensively used text messages between he and his wife during the trial to help present the state’s case.
In December, the Court of Special Appeals ruled in favor of Sewell, opining the text messages between he and his wife should be protected by marital privilege, and the case was remanded back to Worcester County Circuit Court for a new trial. However, the higher Court of Appeals took up the case and this week ruled the text messages between Kevin and Amanda Sewell were indeed admissible and not protected under Maryland’s laws regarding marital privilege. The high court relied on a recent change in state law that requires anyone who believes a child has been or is being abused to report the suspicions to the appropriate authorities.
“Amanda Sewell was obligated by law to report the suspected abuse, including each text message quoted in this opinion,” the high court’s opinion reads. “They were not protected by the confidential marital communications privilege because it was not reasonable for Kevin Sewell to believe that his text message communications were confidential when they pertained to child abuse and must be disclosed. It matters not whether Kevin Sewell thought they were confidential at the time he sent them. The entire collection of text messages relate to Kevin Sewell’s actions that day as caretaker for the children, and, therefore, they were admissible against him for all charges relating to and stemming from child abuse.”
The Court of Appeals went on to further define the confidentiality of text messages in what has become an illustration of the changing times.
“Text messages, like other marital communications, are presumed to be confidential, unless the party advocating for their admission can establish that they were not,” the opinion reads. “Finally, we hold that it is unreasonable for a spouse to assume that communication made to the other spouse, which the latter has a legal duty to report to law enforcement, is confidential.”
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh petitioned the Court of Appeals to revisit the case, arguing, in part, for an exception to marital privilege for cases of child abuse.
“The court’s decision is groundbreaking,” Frosh said. “It helps protect children from abuse and aids in the prosecution of those who hurt the most vulnerable in our society.