Judge bars part of taped police interview as evidence in manslaughter trial

August 14, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

A Circuit Court judge ruled Friday that portions of a taped interview police conducted with an Ellicott City accountant accused of manslaughter in the death of his 20-year-old girlfriend should be stricken before the case goes to trial later this month.

Judge James B. Dudley denied most of what Deputy Public Defender Louis P. Willemin requested, however.

Mr. Willemin wanted Judge Dudley to suppress portions of a statement Melvin Robert Bowers, 50, gave to police after the death of Geneva Marie Hodge of Baltimore on Sept. 6, 1993, at his Ellicott City home.

Judge Dudley ruled in March that evidence obtained from Mr. Bowers' home cannot be used because police conducted an illegal search there.

Mr. Willemin argued Friday that many of the statements given to police by Mr. Bowers should not be admissible when the case goes to trial Aug. 22 because they are "the direct fruit of an unlawful search and seizure."

The defense attorney wanted the judge to strike statements about whether Mr. Bowers intended to bury Ms. Hodge in his back yard after waking up to find her dead in the bed beside him.

Mr. Bowers, a divorced father of four children, told police he fell asleep while holding a rag soaked with chloroform over Ms. Hodge's face to ease the pain she was suffering from toothache. The chloroformed cloth was still over her mouth when he awoke the next morning, Mr. Bowers said.

When his attempts to revive her failed, he considered burying her body in the back yard of his home in the 2800 block of Southview Road, Mr. Bowers told police, according to the tape. He called 911 eight hours later to report Ms. Hodge's death.

Mr. Bowers is charged with manslaughter, reckless endangerment and inhaling harmful substances. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 15 1/2 years in prison.

During their interrogation, police officers told Mr. Bowers that there was "a distinct set of footprints" leading to a shed in his back yard and asked him if he had gone there that day and if he had a shovel there, according to the tape.

"Did there come a time today when you were going to try to get rid of her?" Officer William Vogel asked during the taped interrogation.

Mr. Willemin wanted the question struck. He contended that Officer Vogel would not have known about the footprints if he had not noticed them during the illegal search of the house and grounds.

"Everything that concerns burying the body is a direct result of an illegal sweep," Mr. Willemin said. A statement by Officer Vogel that he made "a lucky guess" about the footprints "defies credulity," he argued.

Mr. Willemin also wanted Judge Dudley to strike statements relating to handcuffs found on the dresser in Mr. Bowers' bedroom.

Judge Dudley said the handcuffs were not discovered illegally and statements about them were admissible. "Police were responding to a call about dead woman in a bedroom," he said. That they saw handcuffs on the dresser was "a lawful observation," he ruled.

"The court has found there was a period of time between when police were called and when the statements were made -- four to five hours," Judge Dudley said. "Mr. Bowers consulted with an attorney not once, but twice. After conferring with an attorney, he engaged in conversation with the officers."

After the ruling, Judge Dudley, Senior Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Murtha and Mr. Willemin went line by line through other portions of Mr. Bowers' statement to police.

The judge agreed to exclude from evidence police questions about whether the death might have occurred from causes other than chloroform -- such as choking -- and about whether Mr. Bowers had ever assaulted anyone.

An autopsy revealed that Ms. Hodge died inhaling chloroform and that she had been drinking. It showed no signs that she had been choked.

The judge refused to delete questions about Mr. Bowers' sexual activities.

After the hearing, Mr. Willemin said that although he would have preferred to have all of the judge's rulings go his way, the ones decided in his favor were important. They "direct the case to move decidedly toward what happened on this night rather than on other things not supported by evidence," Mr. Willemin said.

Mr. Murtha said the rulings "were more of a technical nature" and will not affect his prosecution of the case.

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