High court justices question use of edited confession in city trial Co-defendant's statement key part of '93 case against youth convicted in slaying

December 09, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court justices raised the prospect yesterday of a new trial for a Baltimore youth who was convicted -- with the help of an edited confession from another young man -- of beating a youth to death four years ago.

In a hearing, Carmen M. Shepard, a senior deputy Maryland attorney general, faced a barrage of hostile questions and comments from several justices about how jurors might have been improperly influenced to convict the Baltimore youth, Kevin Domonic Gray, of manslaughter.

In a case that prosecutors said grew from the terrorizing of a neighborhood along Wildwood Parkway, the jury convicted Gray of killing Stacey Williams in 1993. Six youths held Williams over their heads, threw him to the ground and repeatedly kicked and beat him. He died a few hours later.

The Supreme Court case turns on the effect on the jurors of a confession given to police by another youth involved, Anthony Bell.

Bell implicated himself, Gray and a third youth, Jacquin "Tank" Vanlandingham. In an unrelated incident, Vanlandingham was fatally shot two days after the beating.

Confession names three

Bell's confession named the three and stated that "a few other guys" also had been involved.

Gray and Bell were tried together. Under constitutional rules laid down by earlier Supreme Court decisions, Bell's confession could be used only against him.

That was because Bell did not testify at the trial and could not be cross-examined about what he told police. The Sixth Amendment guarantees an accused the right to confront accusers.

Bell's confession was edited for use at the trial.

The names of Gray and Vanlandingham were struck and replaced by the word "deleted." For example, when asked by police who was involved, Bell's reply read: "Me, DELETED, DELETED, and a few other guys."

The jury was told to consider the statement a confession for Bell only.

Gray appealed his conviction, arguing that his Sixth Amendment right had been violated.

The Maryland Court of Appeals upheld Gray's conviction. It ruled that the deletion of Gray's name, and the instructions to jurors about how the confession was to be used, were enough to protect his trial rights.

Gray's lawyer, Arthur A. DeLano Jr., told the justices yesterday that the word "deleted" was "a red flag to the jury."

DeLano likened it to a bleeped word on television: The listener, DeLano argued, focuses on what was deleted.

Pressed by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor about how the jury would have interpreted the deletion, DeLano said "it could be left with no other conclusion" than that the deleted names were Gray's and Vanlandingham's.

Aggressive questioning

Though the justices questioned DeLano forcefully on his reasons for asserting that the jury would have used the Bell confession to convict Gray, the most aggressive questioning began once Shepard took the lectern.

Repeatedly, the justices denounced the confession. Among them was Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative who seldom reacts sympathetically to arguments favoring convicted criminals.

Justice David H. Souter said the jurors' "reasonable reaction" to the deletion was that it was a reference to a name, and Scalia said "it would be a slow jury if it can't understand that."

Souter suggested that the jury was likely to conclude that one of the names was "the other guy in the other chair" -- Gray.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the jurors would have found it "nigh irresistible" to fill in a blank with someone's name.

"It doesn't take a lawyer to figure that out," Ginsburg said.

The court is expected to decide the case by next summer.

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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