Two murder convictions overturned Court of Appeals orders new trial in '94 deaths of D.C. lawyers

'Again presumed innocent'

Three judicial errors found

Arnold man due retrial within 6 months

July 31, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Court of Appeals overturned yesterday the double-murder conviction of Scotland E. Williams, ordering a new trial for the condemned Arnold man in the May 1994 slayings of two prominent Washington lawyers.

The state's highest court ruled unanimously that Williams was unfairly convicted last year on charges that he murdered Jose Trias and his wife, Julie Gilbert. The two were found dead in their Annapolis weekend home overlooking the Severn River, handcuffed and shot in the head.

"Mr. Williams is once again presumed to be innocent," said Michael Braudes, a public defender who argued the Williams case before the Court of Appeals.

Anne Arundel County prosecutors pledged yesterday to retry Williams within six months.

Cynthia M. Ferris, the assistant state's attorney who prosecuted Williams, said she was "very frustrated and disappointed" with the ruling but expects to win a conviction in the second trial.

"This is as good a case in terms of evidence as I've had. And it's about as solid a case as I've tried," said Ferris, who has been a prosecutor for 17 years. "The evidence was strong. We presented it very carefully. If there was one case I thought would get through the appeals process, it was this one."

Williams, 33, was arrested three days after the bodies were discovered. He was holding more than $2,000 in cash, which he allegedly stole from Gilbert's bank account by using her automatic teller card. He was identified from videotape taken at ATM machines.

Defense attorneys argued that Williams had commited the burglary, but not the murders. During his March 1995 sentencing, Williams said: "I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I think I should get it [the death penalty.]"

The court, which considers death-penalty appeals automatically, ruled in a 44-page opinion that Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner made three crucial mistakes during the trial:

He did not allow defense attorneys enough latitude in challenging the credibility of DNA evidence. DNA, taken from saliva found on a glass at the crime scene, allegedly matched DNA from a Williams blood sample. The court ruled that defense attorneys should have been allowed to ask more questions about whether the DNA sample could have been contaminated during testing.

He allowed prosecutors to question a defense witness about his juvenile crime record. Mark Wheelton, who was in jail with Williams before his trial, testified that a key prosecution witness lied by saying that Williams admitted to the shootings in jail house conversation.

Lerner allowed prosecutors to ask Wheelton, a convicted murderer, about burglary convictions while he was a juvenile. A juvenile conviction is not considered a criminal conviction that can be introduced in Maryland courts.

He should not have allowed the prosecution to admit a pry bar and a can of Mace into evidence. Prosecutors said Williams used the tools to break into the victims' home. But the Court of Appeals ruled that the tools were not connected to the murders, and should not have been part of the trial.

"The danger of unfair prejudice in admitting the crowbar and Mace substantially outweighed any minimal probative value," Judge Howard S. Chasanow wrote for the court.

Lerner declined to comment yesterday. But Braudes said the court was correct in granting a new trial.

"Judge Lerner tried diligently to be fair to both the defense and the state," Braudes said. "Nonetheless, he made mistakes that adversely affected the defense's case. We feel the court has corrected that."

Prosecutors, however, held up the case as a reason why many citizens believe that the judicial system is broken.

"Each one of these things is what the public would call a technicality," said Ferris.

Second trials often pose problems for defense and prosecuting attorneys, lawyers say. Witnesses have to be found, evidence re-evaluated. But Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said the prosecution is prepared.

"We have every piece of paper, we have every piece of evidence locked up and ready to pull out," Riggin said. "As prosecutors, we feel that when roadblocks to cases such as this are put up, it's really a step in the wrong direction."

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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