The Maryland Court of Appeals today overturned the conviction of a man sentenced to death in the 1989 slaying of a Baltimore police officer in a Pennsylvania Avenue apartment building.
A four-judge majority of the state's highest court ordered a new trial for Shawn M. Woodson, ruling that the trial judge should not have allowed testimony by a fellow inmate at the City Jail who said Woodson confessed to shooting Officer William J. Martin.
The inmate, Andre Spells, testified during the trial that Woodson showed him an injury he incurred in the shooting on an apartment stairwell and admitted to him that he had shot Officer Martin.
Spells said he had shared a cell with Woodson for a day and two nights, but when a prosecutor asked him to identify Woodson in court, he could not pinpoint him.
The Court of Appeals ruled today that prosecutors failed to provide any evidence from jail records or guards that Woodson and Spells were ever cellmates.
Noting that it was a capital punishment case, the court said more evidence was needed to link the two men before Spells could be allowed to testify against Woodson.
"To admit such evidence on such an inadequate evidentiary foundation would be, for example, to sanction the testimony of any witness who, without more, claims that a voice on the telephone, which he cannot recognize as the defendant's, identified himself using the name of the defendant, and confessed to the crime," stated the opinion, written by Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy.
Judge Robert L. Karwacki, who wrote the dissenting opinion for the three-judge minority, said the ruling departed from Maryland precedent by overturning the conviction on Spells' testimony. He said the standard for admitting evidence, even in a capital punishment case, is the likelihood that it is reliable, not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Judge Karwacki said the fact that Spells knew Woodson's name and had seen the injury to Woodson's body "provided ample circumstantial support" for allowing him to testify. He said Spells' failure to identify Woodson in the courtroom did not detract from his testimony.
"Rather, it was for the jury to determine the weight to be accordedthat inference in light of Spells' inability [or unwillingness] to identify Woodson at trial," he wrote.
Woodson, formerly of the 4100 block of Boarman Ave. in Forest Park, was sentenced to death in the 1990 murder of Officer Martin in the an apartment building in the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Ave. Officer Herman L. Brooks Jr. was wounded.
Officer Martin, 37, died at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center from two bullets to the head.
Police arrested Woodson and Taavon Hall, of the 4000 block of Oakford Ave. Hall was charged with murder and attempted murder, but prosecutors did not seek the death penalty against him because they believed Woodson was the trigger man. In Maryland, only the person who actually committed a murder can receive a death penalty.
Testimony in the case showed that Woodson, Hall and three other men had bought heroin early Oct. 10, 1989, and drove to an apartment building in the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Ave. One man went into a unit while Woodson, Hall and the other two used heroin in the stairwell.
Two men fled when they saw flashing lights from a police car, but Woodson and Hall remained. Officer Brooks testified that Officer Martin went up the stairs. He heard a shot, a pause, and two more shots.
Officer Brooks said he went into the building and was shot in the hand, and then exchanged gunfire with a suspect. He was hit in the chest area of his bulletproof vest, and knocked down. Woodson was wounded in the groin area and arrested by another officer.