A race card ploy that failed Suspect arrested in fiancee's slaying tried to blame black man

February 04, 1996|By Peter Hermann

It had all the trappings of a racially explosive case: A black robber opens fire on an innocent white couple in a Southwest Baltimore park, the woman is fatally wounded by six bullets and her boyfriend suffers a thigh wound.

But within 48 hours the case was solved: The boyfriend, Robert Harris, 23, was charged with paying $20,000 to an alleged hit man, Russell Raymond Brill, 22, of Arbutus.

Police said Mr. Harris staged the robbery to collect a $150,000 life insurance policy on his fiancee, Teresa McLeod, 27. In fact, Ms. McLeod's 9-year-old son was the beneficiary.

The murder Jan. 26 of Ms. McLeod is similar to several other highly publicized cases in which white killers blamed black suspects.

Last year, Susan Smith was convicted of drowning her two children. The South Carolina woman told police that a black man abducted the boys.

And in 1989 in Boston, Charles Stuart shot himself and his pregnant wife and blamed a black man. Stuart also staged the crime to collect insurance money. The resemblance is striking, but there are some notable differences between the Boston case and the one here.

The Stuart case touched off a racial firestorm fueled by a dramatic 911 tape of Mr. Stuart's emergency call. Boston police raised constitutional questions when they swarmed into black neighborhoods in search of a suspect. The manhunt ended when a black man was arrested.

About three months after the incident, Mr. Stuart's brother exposed the hoax and Mr. Stuart committed suicide by jumping from a bridge.

Solid police work and quick arrests brought the McLeod case to a conclusion before it could spark racial unrest.

"We didn't go looking for a black guy," said Det. Darryl Massey, one of three homicide investigators on the case, who said he had doubts from the beginning. "We kept an open mind. Anybody was a possible suspect."

Racial hoaxes involving black suspects have become relatively commonplace.

Katheryn K. Russell, professor of criminology at the University of Maryland at College Park, points to several similar cases, including a white woman who recently falsely accused a black man of rape at George Washington University.

Ms. Russell, who has written an article for the Indiana Law Review on racial hoaxes, said inter-racial crime involving white victims gets the most attention from police and the media, leading some whites to believe that "they can use this young black male as a scapegoat for any crime."

Baltimore homicide investigators who pulled up to the murder scene said they had nagging questions from the start.

First, there was overkill. Court documents say Ms. McLeod was shot three times in the back, and then three more times in the head after she fell. And Mr. Harris was shot only once, in the leg.

"It's just not the norm for a robbery where a female would be a primary target," Detective Massey said, adding that the scant description -- a black male wearing a camouflage jacket and black and white pants -- didn't fit either.

"It wasn't what a young stickup man would wear," Detective Massey said. "Young boys believe in dressing in some color coordination. You don't wear camouflage and white and black pants."

Then came the interview with Mr. Harris, who at that time, Detective Massey said, was being treated as a victim whose wavering statements could be attributed to fear.

"Victim Harris was inconsistent with the facts and uncooperative during the interview," court documents say.

Media coverage also played a role. The Stuart case became huge as soon as the shooting occurred, fueled by the release of the dramatic 911 tape of Mr. Stuart pleading for help -- a call later determined to be part of the scam.

In Baltimore, several television stations showed up at the Joh Avenue scene and broadcast stories that night. Most quoted police saying what they knew at the time: A couple was shot during an apparent robbery.

The Sun ran a six-paragraph account of the slaying on Sunday, but did not mention the race of the apparent suspect.

Joe DeFeo, news director at WBFF, Channel 45, said his station's story on Sunday mentioned race (its policy is to run what police give out). He said the shooting "was a little unusual. The couple was apparently innocently sitting in their car. By those accounts, it appeared not to be a routine type of incident."

Jayne Miller, a reporter for WBAL-TV, Channel 11, said her station gave the slaying perfunctory treatment until Monday, when the apparent hoax became public. Then the story led the newscast. She said the suspect's race was not mentioned because the description was incomplete.

Ms. Miller said that the Boston media immediately jumped on the Stuart case not because of race, but because of the dramatic 911 call made from the car phone. "That's what set Boston apart," she said.

Mr. DeFeo agreed that had Baltimore police released Mr. Harris' 911 call, the story would have received more attention. "It would have made a bigger impact to hear him call in."

The Stuart case had other sensational elements as well. His wife was pregnant and the couple was returning from a birthing class. Mr. Stuart ran an upscale fur store. And his story was initially more believable because he was seriously wounded -- he apparently didn't mean to shoot himself in the stomach.

But Baltimore is not immune to racial unrest caused by crime. Two years ago, after an elderly couple was beaten to death in their Guilford home, residents of the wealthy and mostly white neighborhood called for barricades to deter outsiders from using their streets. That proposal quickly died when police arrested the couple's grandson.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said that the way Baltimoreans handled last week's slaying shows that "we're getting more sophisticated as a community, and are waiting to make judgments until facts come in and not operating out of rumor and innuendo. That may be a positive sign of the times."

Peter Hermann is a reporter for The Sun.

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