Investigator Rattles The Bones Of An Old Murder Case

Racism May Havefigured In A 1919 Hanging Sentence

March 13, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

The trail is stone cold.

The remains of the convicted killer lie in an unmarked grave in Annapolis, and the witnesses to the crime have died.

But Tim Turner of Annapolis, a young private investigator, becameinterested in the case of John Snowden, hanged in 1919 for killing an Annapolis woman. He figured he'd poke through the records a bit on his own time, having heard that the state Division of Parole and Probation is reviewing the case. The state is considering a request for posthumous clemency.

The request came from Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, no relation to John Snowden. The alderman and community activist believes John Snowden -- who was black -- was railroaded for the slaying of a white woman as authorities rushed to close the case.He says the governor can set the record straight.

Snowden made the request last June. The Christmas season, during which Gov. William Donald Schaefer traditionally issues clemency orders, passed without word from the governor's office. And there the matter rests.

"It'sstill under investigation," Ray Feldmann, the governor's assistant press secretary, said this week. "We are trying to look into whatever facts we can come up with."

Feldmann could not discuss the material that Parole and Probation is reviewing.

There's not much out there, said Turner. There's the transcript of the 1918 trial -- several hundred pages worth. There is the summary of the case Snowden's lawyer submitted to the Court of Appeals to support an unsuccessful bid for a new trial. There is a death certificate saying that 22-year-old Lottie Mae Brandon died Aug. 8, 1917, in her bedroom of strangulation and a blow to the head with a blunt object. Turner said he could not find reports from either one of two autopsies performed on Brandon'sremains.

Turner, who is 24 years old and works for Pinkerton Security Investigation Services of McLean, Va., offered to examine the records after reading a newspaper account of Carl Snowden's request forclemency. He turned the information he gathered over to Parole and Probation investigators.

He's been licensed as an investigator for a year and a half. He made clear that the time he's spent on the Snowden case is his own and that he is not working under the auspices of Pinkerton.

"This is more like a hobby than an investigation," saidTurner. He displayed his notes, some photocopied pages of the trial transcript and a map of Brandon's block as it appeared in 1917. Second Street, where the slaying took place, has since become Lafayette Street. Brandon's home was just a few hundred yards from Snowden's house on Acton Lane, which is now part of City Gate Lane.

"She lived right here in this house," Turner said, pointing to 29 Second St. on the map. According to the newspaper accounts, that's where Valentine Brandon came home from work at the Naval Experimental Station at about5 p.m. Aug. 8 and found his pregnant wife dead on the bed.

Five days later, police arrested Snowden,a 29-year-old wagon driver for an Annapolis ice company. Witnesses said they'd seen Snowden step out ofthe front door of the Brandon home shortly after the woman is believed to have died. However, the Rev. E.S. Williams, who lived next to the Brandon house, testified that he saw no one leave the house at that time.

Turner said a few other things didn't add up:

A block of ice sat melting on the front steps the morning of the killing, and no question was raised about it.

There were no blood stains anywhere in the house, aside from those on the body and the bed. Turner wondered why, if an assailant were wielding a blunt instrument, no stains were found elsewhere in the room.

No murder weapon was found. "That really got on my nerves," Turner said. "To convict someone on murder and sentence him to death with no murder weapon found. Nowadays, you can't do that."

He doesn't claim to be an expert on police work, but Turner said it appeared from the trial transcript and newspaper accounts that "the police were too quick to make decisions. . . . In a sense, he (Snowden) was used as a scapegoat. He was seen in an area; they said, 'Hey, that's the man.' "

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