Judge overturns 1994 murder conviction and orders new trial for man serving life

Ruling is third recently to reverse major verdict

June 11, 1999|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

An Anne Arundel County judge has overturned the 1994 conviction of Alvin Winslow Gross, who is serving a life sentence without parole for the killing of an Annapolis woman, and ordered a new trial.

The conviction is the third obtained by Anne Arundel County prosecutors in a major case to be erased in about six months. It is also the third post-conviction complaint granted recently by judges who are relatively new to the county's Circuit Court bench.

Gross' family, reached at their Shady Side home last night, was delighted.

"He's definitely thrilled. I'm elated," said Beville Gross, the defendant's father. He noted that the ruling means only that his son has won a retrial.

State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said yesterday that his office will seek permission from the Court of Special Appeals to challenge the ruling by Circuit Judge Pamela L. North.

"It is really a hypertechnical opinion which is incorrect," Weathersbee said, faulting North's opinion as "wrong on the law, in my opinion. She is substituting what she would have done in place of what a very good defense counsel did."

In a 36-page opinion issued this week, North said one of Gross' three defense lawyers, Peter S. O'Neill, failed to appropriately handle issues tied to genetic testing.

North is a former public defender and criminal defense attorney. O'Neill, whose office is in Glen Burnie, is one of the county's better known defense lawyers.

Neither O'Neill nor Fred W. Bennett, who won the new trial for Gross, could be reached last night.

In December 1994, a jury convicted Gross, then 21, of first-degree murder, first-degree rape, kidnapping and handgun charges in the Dec. 19, 1993, death of Margaret Courson, 26, who lived in an Annapolis rooming house.

Cynthia Ferris, then an assistant state's attorney and now a juvenile and domestic master, argued that Gross and a friend picked up Courson about 3: 30 a.m. Dec. 19, 1993. She said Gross raped Courson, then shot her twice in the chest and twice in the neck. He later told two friends that his revolver had "a life on it," she said. A passer-by found Courson's partly clad body about dawn in Tracys Landing in the southern part of the county.

Gross, captain of the Southern High School basketball team four years before the trial, maintained that he and Courson had sex in his truck on Dec. 17, 1993, which explained why Courson's pubic hair and fingerprints were found in his vehicle.

He denied killing her and testified that on the night of her death he arrived home about 10: 30 p.m. and did not leave.

In her ruling, North wrote that O'Neill should have challenged the admission of DNA evidence showing sexual relations and the way it was tested.

O'Neill said in a post-conviction hearing that he did not do that because Gross had admitted having intercourse with Courson.

O'Neill, the judge wrote, did not properly investigate his own DNA expert, who during the trial was found unqualified to be an expert by Judge Bruce C. Williams.

He also failed to challenge other aspects of the presentation of genetic information to the jury. Some of the same errors were made during an unsuccessful appeal, she wrote.

Weathersbee said yesterday that the verdict would not have been different if Gross' defense team had followed North's approach. The law says that only errors that could result in a different verdict are grounds for a new trial, he said, adding, "The court just lost sight of the big picture here."

Weathersbee said he was bothered by what he sees as the readiness of relatively new judicial appointees to grant post-conviction relief.

North was appointed to the bench in 1995. Judge Ronald A. Silkworth, appointed in 1996, overturned a case brought to Anne Arundel from Talbot County. Judge Michael E. Loney, appointed in 1997, ordered a new trial in February for Albert Givens, also convicted of a murder.

In addition, in December a federal judge in threw out the 1992 conviction of Brady C. Spicer for assault with intent to murder.

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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