Exhumation is near in slaying case

July 23, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

A Baltimore judge plans to order the body of an East Baltimore man exhumed and examined for evidence in a double slaying -- a rare decision that has infuriated the man's family and raised questions about privacy rights of the dead.

"What is the grave going to prove?" asked the dead man's mother, Esther Ray, who will try to block the disinterment. "What is going to be on his body? What is he going to do, say he killed the girl?"

Her son, Leroy Edward Harris, has never been identified as a suspect in the slayings, but Baltimore Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown said the dead man's right to rest in peace is outweighed by a living man's right to a fair trial.

The judge said this week that he would grant a request to exhume Mr. Harris' body to determine whether his hair matches hair found on the bodies of a Baltimore woman and her teen-age daughter who were killed in September 1993.

The exhumation request came from David Eaton, an assistant public defender who represents a man charged in the slayings. Mr. Eaton said he hopes to unearth evidence that will shift blame from his client. Tests showed that the hairs found on the victims did not match hairs from his client, he said.

Veteran Baltimore prosecutors said this week that they recalled several cases -- including some of the most sensational in recent city history -- in which a body was exhumed to determine whether the person had died as the result of foul play. But none could recall an exhumation resulting from a defense lawyer's hope of pinning blame on the dead person.

"The order has to be signed," Judge Brown said during a hearing this week. He explained that he is wary of setting the case up for reversal on appeal. "The fact of the matter is, we have one person who is literally fighting for his life, and it has to be done," he said of the exhumation.

Fighting for his freedom, perhaps his life, is 35-year-old Norman R. Brown of Reservoir Hill. Brown could be sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole if convicted in the Sept. 22, 1993, slayings of Cynthia D. Gilliam and her 13-year-old daughter, Donnette D. Smith.

Ms. Gilliam, 30, and the girl were stabbed, bludgeoned and beaten during an attack in their Reservoir Hill apartment. Ms. Gilliam's 10-year-old daughter, Jacqueline D. Parker, was stabbed in the face and was hospitalized for weeks.

Brown and Mr. Harris had dated Ms. Gilliam. Mr. Eaton said he moved to have the body exhumed after prosecutors divulged statements from a witness who had come upon the stabbing scene and had said Mr. Harris might have been the killer because he had abused Ms. Gilliam.

"It just strikes me as a fishing expedition to try to have his body exhumed," said Walter F. Balint, a defense lawyer representing Mr. Harris' family. "A dead person can't come in and say they didn't do it."

Mr. Balint contacted Judge Brown's chambers yesterday to say that the family will oppose the plan to exhume the body. Mr. Harris, a father of four who had been a painter for the city Housing Authority and was described at his funeral as a talented artist, died March 21 at age 47 of complications from acquired immune deficiency syndrome, his mother said. He was buried in a Brooklyn Park cemetery.

He had been Ms. Gilliam's boyfriend for more than five years, Mrs. Ray said. She said her son was questioned by police shortly after the bodies were found. Prosecutor Cassandra L. Costley said Mr. Harris was questioned only because he had been close to the victims, not because he was a suspect in the case.

"I don't think nobody has no right to be doing this to me," Mrs. Ray added. "I know my son did not kill that girl."

Michael A. Millemann, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said he knows of no state law outlining standards for exhumations.

"Before a court is going to order the exhumation of the body, it's going to require a threshold showing by the defense counsel that there is a plausible theory that the person being exhumed is the actual murderer," Mr. Millemann said. "What the court has to do here, and is doing here, is balance the interests.

The interest of [Mr. Harris'] family in his postmortem privacy is substantial. On the other hand, balanced against that is Brown's right to a fair trial. That is one of the weightiest interests that our constitution recognizes. The fair-trial issue should trump the postmortem privacy issue. The fair-trial issue trumps most other issues."

Norman R. Brown was arrested within days of the slayings last year and was charged with two counts of murder and one of attempted murder. He had been released less than two months earlier after serving about seven years of a 10-year sentence for manslaughter in the 1986 stabbing death of an East Baltimore man, according to court records and state corrections officials.

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