Two men wrongly convicted to be freed

Theft of officer's gun led to arrest, but two others now charged

May 19, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Two men wrongly convicted of stealing a Baltimore police officer's gun were ordered released from jail yesterday, six months after they were arrested and four days after police named two other men as suspects.

Reno Mabrey, 19, and Arnold Handy, 20, had their convictions erased during a court hearing that lasted less than five minutes. They were to be freed last night or today, depending on how quickly paperwork could be processed.

"I didn't think the judicial system would make any arrangements like that," said Mabrey's aunt, Barbara Setzer. "I'm surprised. Some laws do work. He wasn't the one who did it."

Handy's mother, Annette Cohn, called the pending release "a blessing. It's over with. Can you imagine how many people are in prison and innocent, and no one listens?"

Yesterday's order ends an embarrassing case for police and prosecutors, who were forced to admit they had arrested and convicted the wrong people. The officer who had been robbed, Helena Mills, had identified Mabrey as her attacker during a pretrial hearing.

Mills' stolen 9 mm Glock handgun was used in the November killing of Oliver T. Murdock, a 73-year-old retired police officer, another shooting and a series of armed robberies -- all committed while Mabrey and Handy were behind bars.

Assistant State's Attorney Andrea Mason, who worked out the plea agreement that sent Mabrey and Handy to jail, declined to comment yesterday. Her office issued a statement saying the state moved quickly to right a wrong once new evidence was uncovered.

"Evidence against Mabrey and Handy was more than sufficient to sustain a conviction," the statement says.

Police discovered the error last week when they arrested two men in Murdock's killing and said they found Mills' weapon at one of the suspect's homes. They said the newly arrested suspects, not Mabrey and Handy, had robbed Mills at gunpoint outside a McDonald's in Pigtown on Nov. 9.

Christopher Williams, 27, and Kevin Blackmon, 21, were charged Friday with first-degree murder in the Nov. 27 slaying of Murdock, police said. Charges of armed robbery are pending against both men, said police.

Mabrey and Handy had professed their innocence since they were charged with armed robbery on Nov. 10. Their parents pooled money and hired defense lawyer Warren A. Brown, who said police had "overwhelming" evidence against his clients.

Not only had Mills picked Mabrey from a photo lineup and publicly identified him under oath in court, prosecutors had a witness from McDonald's who picked out Handy and a getaway pickup truck traced to Mabrey's house.

Instead of chancing a trial and conviction that could have sent Mabrey and Handy to prison for up to 80 years, Brown accepted what he termed a lenient plea agreement: misdemeanor theft that carried a three-year jail sentence.

The two men entered what is called an Alford plea, which allows them to deny guilt but concede that the state has enough evidence to convict them. On April 21, the deal was accepted and guilty findings were entered for both.

The men's family members protested the deal. "Brown didn't do his job," said Mabrey's mother, Joyce Setzer, 45. "He owes us an apology." Cohn said the men "were coached into taking that plea. Mr. Brown did what he had to do. But he could have done better."

Brown said prosecutors had a seemingly airtight case, making the plea an offer that couldn't be refused. "They would have gone down in flames had they gone to trial," the lawyer said.

Brown said he would like to talk to Mills, the officer who had her gun stolen and picked his client out of a lineup. He said he put her on the stand during a pretrial hearing to assess her credibility.

Mills is on vacation and has not talked to police officials about the case. Reached at her Brooklyn home yesterday, the Southern District officer declined to comment and would not say how she misidentified Mabrey.

Mabrey's mother, Setzer, accused police of framing her son. She said officers suspect her son of dealing drugs and routinely pull him in for interviews, but have never found enough evidence to arrest him. The robbery, Setzer said, gave police their chance.

"It was a conspiracy, just because it was a police officer's gun," Setzer said. Mabrey's grandmother, Thelma Jones, 74, said police raided the family home in Cherry Hill looking for the weapon. "Officers told me, `Don't get up. You know he did it.' "

Police did not find the gun, but did seize two of Mabrey's cars, including a Lexus, $6,800 stuffed into a tennis shoe and 86 grams of suspected crack cocaine. They filed felony drug charges against him, but Brown got those charges thrown out of court because police failed to run laboratory tests.

After the court hearing yesterday afternoon, Brown said Mabrey and Handy understand that the judicial system is not always fair. "They know, as we all know, that innocent people are found guilty, and guilty people go free."

Pub Date: 5/19/99

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