Carter jury gets only a portion of the story To prevent 'prejudice,' judge forbids talk of a crime spree

October 30, 1992|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

At the Dontay Carter murder trial you'll hear no mention of men being accosted at gunpoint and stuffed into the trunks of their cars. You'll hear only briefly about missed opportunities to halt a crime spree. Any mention of a black teen-ager's plan to target professional white men for robbery and murder is carefully rehearsed to stay within the boundaries set by the judge.

In short, few of the elements that distinguished a series of abductions from Baltimore's routine stream of violence are featured in Carter's trial in the city's Circuit Court.

Boiled down, the Carter trial -- except the rusty, 5-foot-5-inch metal pipe described as the murder weapon and a $2,000 shopping spree paid for with the victim's credit cards -- is not unlike most other murder trials.

If giving only part of the story to the jury weighing Carter's fate seems to make no sense, consider this: It's all part of a concentrated effort to afford the East Baltimore teen-ager a fair trial that will pass muster under the inevitable review by the state's appellate courts.

As presiding Judge John N. Prevas said this week in admonishing a wayward prosecutor: "You and I don't want to be here a year from now retrying this case."

Much of what jurors in the Carter trial do not see or hear is routinely withheld in most trials to prevent undue "prejudice" against the defendant.

For instance, the jurors know nothing of the two years he served in prison for theft. They do not know his lawyers are public defenders.

They never see Carter in handcuffs or shackles, and they certainly are not told he spends his nights in solitary confinement in a cell next to the gas chamber in the Maryland Penitentiary's "death house." (Carter faces life in prison with no chance for parole, and not the death penalty, if convicted.)

Correctional officials took the extraordinary step of moving Carter to the prison to await trial after he was deemed a "security risk" at the Baltimore City Detention Center, where he allegedly set a fire in his cell and stabbed a correctional officer with a shard of broken glass.

In other instances, however, what the jurors are told is subject to the discretion of Judge Prevas, who set the course of the trial with a ruling that Carter will be tried separately for the three abductions in which he is charged.

That decision led to a "Faulkner" ruling last week forbidding any mention that a series of crimes -- including two where the victims were forced into their car trunks -- has been laid to Carter.

In the Carter trial you hear a lot about Faulkner, as in Alvin Faulkner, who wore a blue denim mask cut from the legs of his jeans while robbing a Montgomery County grocery store in 1985.

Faulkner's conviction -- after jurors were told of other robberies at the same store in which a similar modus operandi, including the distinctive mask, was employed -- touched off a state appellate court review that established the standard on which "other crimes" evidence is reviewed for admission at trial.

Prosecutors in the Carter trial this week announced their intention to present a witness who would say Carter described a plan to rob and murder white men.

The witness would have said Carter, in describing the plan, pointed to a newspaper article on the kidnapping of a Johns Hopkins Hospital doctor who was rescued from the trunk of his car at Mondawmin Mall, prosecutors said.

Noting he was "on the horns of a very major dilemma," Judge Prevas ruled the witness could testify about the plan but could not mention the doctor's kidnapping.

But the trial threatened to come to a crashing halt when the witness, a 16-year-old boy, testified Carter told him he wouldn't repeat the mistake that allowed a previous victim to survive.

Although Judge Prevas criticized prosecutor Thurman Zollicoffer for the formation of the question that prompted the answer, he denied a defense motion for mistrial because the testimony did not refer to a specific crime.

The issue resurfaced when Gary Childs, a Baltimore homicide detective, testified Monday. Defense attorney John S. Deros, who suggested in his opening statement that police eager to close a high-profile case selected Carter as a scapegoat, quizzed the detective on his reaction to the extensive publicity.

Exploring the detective's attitudes toward media limelight, Mr. Deros even asked for his opinion of "Homicide," a book recounting a year in the lives of several city homicide detectives.

Under questioning from Assistant State's Attorney Vickie L. Wash, Sergeant Childs mentioned that the publicity stemmed from a "series of crimes."

After the jury left for the day, Judge Prevas asked Ms. Wash why she asked the questions she did.

He then delivered a tongue-lashing to the prosecutor, telling her she would be "in serious trouble" if she again tried to get around his ruling to prohibit mention of the other crimes.

"This is much too expensive a proceeding, both for the court in terms of judge time, for the state's attorney's office in terms of what it's got to do, in terms of the Police Department for what it's got to do and what the family's got to go through emotionally for you to engage in this kind of behavior," the judge said. "Cease and desist."

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