Good for Defendant, Not for Victim's Kin

COMMENT

February 27, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

"Happy" is not quite the right word for how Walter and Josephine Brewer felt the day Bernie Ward was sentenced to life for killing their only son. Satisfied, perhaps. Relieved that the arm of justice had reached out and ensnared one of the two men they believe killed their Eddie.

The end of that trial brought some sense of completion. In a tragedy full of mysteries and unanswered questions, here, at least, was one issue that seemed to be closed. The Brewers watched Mr. Ward go to prison without reservation. He was guilty, and he would pay.

But the arm of justice is an imperfect machine. On Nov. 13, 1992, three years after Mr. Ward was sent to jail, an Anne Arundel County judge ruled that his lawyer was so inept that his rights had been violated by the time he entered an Alford plea -- not admitting guilt but conceding that the state had enough evidence to convict -- four days into his trial. He awarded Mr. Ward a new trial. It was the right decision; a trial where the defense attorney never once objects during four days of testimony is not a fair trial.

It was also the beginning of the end of whatever peace the Brewers had managed to find since that November night in 1988 when Eddie disappeared.

A jury acquitted Bernie Ward earlier this month. Four people who testified he was with them in Florida the night Eddie was killed amounted to more than enough reasonable doubt. Mr. Ward says he is innocent, that he was coerced into a confession and misled by his attorney into pleading guilty. If he is telling the truth, he has suffered the worst mistake the justice system can make.

But the Brewers have suffered from the system's mistakes, too. And unlike Mr. Ward, who at 34 is starting his life over free of doubts about what really happened that night, they are looking at golden years permanently tainted by grief, uncertainty and frustration at a judicial system that, from their point of view, failed abysmally.

It goes without saying that the last few years have been very hard for the Brewers, who live in Dundalk in Baltimore County. Eddie was only 25 when he died. He was, his parents say, smart, charming, popular with women and nice-looking -- a fact borne out by the photos they carry. He had attended Loyola College, tended bar and worked with his father as a railroad maintenance worker. He had never moved away from home and was close with his parents.

After he disappeared and his white Camaro was found torched near an abandoned house along Crain Highway, they spent nearly a month agonizing and hoping.

"Not knowing, you have hope," Walter says. "Hope ended when they found him."

They found him in the basement of the old abandoned house, where Walter had gone looking for clues one day but where the police apparently never looked until a month later. This rankles the Brewers more than anything, far more than not having been allowed to attend Mr. Ward's first trial or seeing his conviction overturned.

"If they found him [right after he was killed], they would have had some clues," Walter says. "Plus, we could have had an open casket."

The murder was not the only shock. The testimony of the first trial revealed a part of Eddie's life that his parents knew nothing about. The bars at which he worked were gay bars. Prosecutors described a sordid murder scenario involving sexual solicitation. The Brewers do not believe their son was involved in this, but they accept that there were things that Eddie did not share with them.

Oddly enough, they were not that upset when they heard Mr. Ward would be retried. "I didn't think he had a chance in the world. And in a way, I didn't mind going to trial again because I thought a second person might be named," Walter says.

They expected the second trial to complete what the first one started. Instead, it undid the first trial. The first trial left them with a measure of comfort; the second blasted their emotional recovery to bits and left them convinced that the justice system "stinks" because it puts criminals before victims.

Of course, trials are not for victims. This is something victims' rights groups have trouble understanding. A trial revolves around the defendant -- his rights, his presumption of innocence, the evidence for or against him. Trials can only satisfy victims' needs incidentally. I suspect that even if the various victims' rights bills before the General Assembly are approved, these people still won't have what they really want: a system that considers their feelings first. It is an unfortunate fact that trials by nature are hard on victims.

Perhaps some of the provisions in these victims' rights bills will make them less hard. But it seems that the best way to lessen the burden on innocents such as the Brewers is simply for police, attorneys and judges to do their jobs right.

That means looking for evidence while it is fresh. Ferreting out witnesses. Making sure a confession is a confession and not an act of fear. Providing a solid defense; this not only protects the falsely accused, but gives convictions teeth, thus reducing the odds that victims will have to sit through a trial more than once.

Had the arm of justice worked flawlessly the first time, it still might not have given the Brewers the result they wanted. But surely that would have been a less cruel blow than the one that hit them two weeks ago.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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