Injustice unaired is justice denied after false arrest

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 30, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Brian Watson was getting out of the bathtub last July 5 when city police knocked on his front door and charged him with rape.

Exactly nine months later -- having languished in the Baltimore City Jail without ever being brought to trial -- Watson was taken before Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, where his case was thrown out of court.

The state's attorney's office, having done a DNA genetic code test of Watson's blood, saliva, hair and sperm, decided it had the wrong man and told him he could go home.

But Watson didn't want to leave right away. He had questions: Why had it taken so long to administer a test? Why did he have to wait so long to come to court? Why couldn't anybody figure out he looked nothing like the man described in the rape? And was the justice system going to pay him for lost wages and reputation?

He tried to ask these questions, but Judge Mitchell said no.

"Could my client address the court for a minute?" Watson's defense attorney, Anton Keating, asked Mitchell immediately after the case was thrown out.

"This is not the place for that," said Mitchell.

It isn't?

"Take it to the courthouse steps," said Mitchell.

Yesterday morning, asked for an explanation of his remarks, Mitchell declared, "I won't comment."

But wouldn't a sense of fairness demand that someone jailed for a crime he didn't commit be given a moment to have his say?

"I have nothing to say about this case," said Mitchell.

Nor, apparently, does Assistant State's Attorney Mary Jane Schroeder, who has not returned repeated calls to her office.

What we do know about this case, however, is this:

Early in the morning of last June 25, a woman was attacked in her home on Old York Road by a black man who told her his twin brother had gone to high school with the victim's daughter.

A week later, the victim told police she looked through her daughter's high school yearbook and saw a photograph of someone who "resembled" the black man who raped her.

The man in the yearbook picture was Brian Watson, now 23 years old. He was working six days a week for minimum wages as a cook at Memorial Stadium. He had a large orange streak across the right side of his otherwise black hair.

Watson was picked up by police, and bail was set at $750,000. Police had Watson remove the orange streak from his hair and stand in a lineup with four other black males. The victim identified him as being her assailant.

But a few things never quite matched up.

The victim told police her assailant was 5 feet 7 inches to 5 feet 9 inches. Watson is 6 feet 2 inches.

The victim said her assailant weighed about 160 pounds. Watson weighed 180.

The victim said her assailant had a scar on his forearm, which he told her had been put there as an initiation into a drug gang. Watson has no scar on his arm.

The victim said her assailant had light skin. Watson has dark skin.

The victim said her assailant had black hair. Watson's girlfriend says she orange-striped his hair in May 1990 and renewed the application the following month -- before the attack.

The victim made no mention of her assailant's unusual dental work. Watson has a large gold crown on his front tooth, which attorney Keating says was placed there in 1988 and is not removable.

The attack took place early in the morning of last June 25. But, at 6:30 that morning, Watson's mother, Linda Watson, who has worked in the University Hospital emergency room for the past 15 years, called home.

Watson was there, as were his girlfriend and his sister.

ZTC "I never saw the lady in my whole life," says Watson, now back working at Memorial Stadium. "I didn't know what was going on. I got out of the tub, the police were at the door, and the next thing I know, I'm behind bars.

"I nearly went crazy at the City Jail. It was so bad, I was thinking of killing myself over something I didn't do. I mean, you see what goes on in that place, it drives you crazy. And here I was locked up and didn't have anything to do with it."

"Mistaken identity," defense attorney Keating adds, "is one of the leading causes of miscarriages of justice. This case represents such a miscarriage."

But Keating is upset that Watson never had a chance to express himself in court.

"Fundamental fairness," he said in a letter to Judge Mitchell. "The basic responsibility of a trial judge is to safeguard both the right of the accused and the interest of the public. . . . Allowing an accused a few minutes to make a public statement would have facilitated these responsibilities."

For that reason, Keating is requesting the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys' Association to propose a rule change that would give defendants the right to address the court when the state has dropped charges against them.

Watson, Keating points out in his letter to Mitchell, "will receive no compensation for his false detention. He's had to spend money for legal fees. The court has no power to redress his grievances or to right the wrong done to him.

"However, prohibiting him . . . from making a public statement in the appropriate forum, a court of law, added insult to his already substantial injuries."

In a brief return letter to Keating, Judge Mitchell suggests Keating should have kept his thoughts to himself. But then, that's the same thing he told Brian Watson.

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