Prosecutors' keeping man behind bars puts justice in question, fairness on trial

May 23, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

BRADY SPICER sat behind the window in the room at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center. His hair was cut short. His goatee was sprinkled with gray hairs, showing that he was well into his 40s now.

Spicer's eyes peer at you from behind a pair of glasses that barely allow you to see his pain. His eyes seem to ask you the question Spicer has been asking the past seven years: Why is this man in prison?

He was convicted of assault with intent to murder Francis "Bones" Denvir, then owner of the Annapolis bar known as Armadillo's. He was sentenced to 30 years. The case presented by the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office hinged on three eyewitnesses. Two of them gave no positive identification of Spicer from police photos. The other, Larry M. Brown Sr., was the state's star witness. Brown also was in jail on drug charges and could have been nailed with 20 years. Looking to cut a deal, he told his lawyer that Spicer had asked him about working at Armadillo's days before the crime and thanked him for his silence about Spicer's involvement a few days after same.

When Brown talked to Steven Sindler, who was a county assistant state's attorney at the time and the prosecutor in the Spicer case, his story had one important change: He not only talked to Spicer before and after the crime, but had actually seen him running from the scene.

Only weeks ago, Brown recanted it all. He had made it up. Afflicted with AIDS and living in a nursing home, Brown told Sun reporter Andrea Siegel that he wanted to clear his conscience, that he had done something terrible to someone years ago.

Brown's confession came close behind a U.S. District Court opinion handed down last December in which Judge Peter Messitte ordered that "Spicer shall be retried within four months or that he be unconditionally released from custody."

County prosecutors decided to do neither. They appealed Messitte's decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where a hearing is scheduled for June 8. Spicer's lawyers, Nancy Cohen and Carol McCabe, aren't optimistic about their client's appeal chances. The 4th Circuit has ruled for the state of Maryland in over 40 consecutive cases.

Messitte declared in his opinion that Sindler's failure to inform Spicer's attorney of Brown's two different stories -- first he wasn't at the crime scene, then suddenly he was -- constituted a "Brady violation," named for a 1963 Supreme Court case that requires prosecutors to let defense attorneys know of any evidence that might indicate a defendant is innocent. The judge also chided county prosecutors for allowing Sam Novella, an eyewitness who claimed he saw Spicer running from Armadillo's, to testify even though he sat in the courtroom for part of the trial.

Witnesses being barred from hearing each other's testimony is law school 101 stuff. You have to wonder if the folks in the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office ever heard of it. But violating witness sequestration rules is only part of what's wrong with this office. David Cordel, an investigator for the office, testified at Spicer's 1996 post-conviction relief hearing that Novella and Harry Connick, the other eyewitness, never made a positive photo line-up identification of Spicer and in fact had picked out other men from several mug shots as the possible assailant. Four Annapolis Police Department officers testified likewise and said they never considered Spicer -- whose criminal history was one of theft, not violent attacks -- a suspect.

Using Brown as a key witness should win county prosecutors a permanent place in the Idiot Hall of Fame. And what do prosecutors say now in light of Brown's recantation? We still had two other eyewitnesses, they trumpet. They're probably hoping Joe and Jill Average don't look at the trial transcript. But here's what Connick and Novella had to say at Spicer's trial.

Connick pointed out Spicer and said that he looked heavier than the man he confronted in Armadillo's the day of the crime. Spicer wore glasses in court. The man Connick saw had none, but did sport a full beard that Spicer didn't have.

"He looks considerably different now," Connick said at trial. "But I'm positive that's him." Connick described the suspect to police as being 5 feet 9 inches and weighing about 170 pounds. Spicer is 6 feet 4 inches and weighs, he says, 250.

"I haven't been 5-9 since I was 13," Spicer said.

Here's how Novella identified Spicer as the man he saw running from Armadillo's:

"It's been a long time, but he looks very, very familiar."

Mr. Magoo would have been as accurate an eyewitness. County prosecutors feel comfortable keeping a man imprisoned based on such nonsense. You have to wonder how they sleep at night. Spicer has maintained his innocence for seven years, challenged State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee to give him a polygraph test the day he learned Brown had fingered him as the assailant and recently passed a polygraph test given by an FBI expert.

"It's a sad day for justice, I'll tell you that," Spicer said from behind the detention center window. It's been a sad day for over seven years now.

Comments from Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee will appear in Wednesday's column.

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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