Carozza conviction is reversed Murder trial tainted, appeals court says

March 07, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS -- Prosecutors still haven't nailed a homicide conviction on Dominic J. "Crowbar" Carozza.

The Court of Special Appeals has reversed the murder conviction of the longtime crime figure and former city public works supervisor and his co-defendant, Robert J. Vizzini, in an opinion that said his trial was tainted by a racial remark and hearsay evidence.

Carozza, 60, and Mr. Vizzini, 27, were both sentenced to life in prison last April 25 for their convictions in the June 22, 1991, death of Russell Charles Baker, 42, a heroin addict who prosecutors said was killed over a $2,600 debt to Carozza. Mr. Baker was shot six times on Pier 7 in Fells Point.

But the three-judge panel of Maryland's second-highest court on Thursday ordered a new trial for the two men, giving another legal victory to Carozza, who was acquitted of killing three people in two separate incidents during the 1960s.

Appellate court judges said the racial statement prejudiced the jury against Carozza. The remark was made when prosecutor Elizabeth Ritter asked him during cross-examination to repeat an earlier statement about two black police officers.

Judge Hilary D. Caplan overruled objections by defense attorneys for both Carozza and Mr. Vizzini.

The prosecutor then continued, asking Carozza whether he had told the officers that "they should go back to the jungle and swinging from trees." He responded, "And chase lions the way they chase me, yes, I believe that was the whole thing."

The opinion by Chief Judge Alan M. Wilner and Judges Theodore G. Bloom and Glenn T. Harrell Jr. said it was improper for the judge to admit the remark and said the statement may have unfairly contributed to the jury's March 5, 1991, guilty verdict.

"The prosecution's questioning left the jury with the unmistakable impression that Mr. Carozza held racist attitudes," the appellate court said.

Appellate judges also held that the trial court should not have allowed Mr. Baker's niece and nephew to testify that Mr. Baker would drive to New York to buy drugs for Carozza, because it portrayed him as an established drug dealer. They said there was no other evidence connecting him to drug distribution.

The court said that although the erroneous evidence referred only to Carozza, it could have contributed to the conviction of both Carozza and Mr. Vizzini.

Phillip M. Sutley, Carozza's attorney, said yesterday that he was delighted by the decision but not surprised.

"I thought we had a really good case on the appeal," Mr. Sutley said. "If there is a new trial, I feel certain that we would prevail."

Carozza, who lost his right leg in a 1971 car-bomb explosion, is in the Maryland Penitentiary. He has a 30-year criminal history that includes convictions connected to shootings, stabbings and federal firearms charges. He spent six years in prison for the 1962 shooting of a doorman at an East Baltimore after-hours club, but he playfully referred to his sentence as "going to college."

City prosecutors could not be reached for comment.

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