Man wrongly convicted of murder after misconduct to seek new trial

City prosecutor resigns after office withheld exculpatory evidence

July 13, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

The attorney for a man wrongfully convicted of murder because the Baltimore state's attorney's office withheld critical evidence said yesterday she will ask that her client receive a new trial and that his conviction be overturned.

Also yesterday, The Sun learned that the prosecutor who handled the case, Nancy Beth Pollack, left her job shortly before the newspaper published a two-part series this week outlining evidence problems at the Baltimore courthouse. Sources in the state's attorney's office said she was forced to resign.

The lawyer for Antoine Jerome Pettiford successfully argued on appeal last year that key evidence was not disclosed before the trial for first-degree murder in 1995. After the appeal, prosecutors conceded that Pettiford deserved a new trial but offered him a deal that would enable him to leave jail immediately by accepting a manslaughter conviction. Pettiford entered a Alford plea, which allowed him to maintain his innocence but placed the conviction on his record.

Now his lawyer alleges that additional material was not turned over when she requested the new trial and says she wants the manslaughter conviction erased.

"Mr. Pettiford should be vindicated," defense attorney Michelle M. Martz said yesterday.

The Pettiford case was detailed in Sunday's editions of The Sun. Pettiford was charged in the shooting death of Oscar Edward Lewis Jr. on an East Baltimore street April 30, 1994.

The day after the slaying, Lewis' best friend, Dante Lamont Todd, told homicide detectives that the bullets also were meant for him. Todd said he was involved in a dispute over drug money with a ruthless dealer, Demetrius Smith, known as "Meat," and that Smith had threatened to kill him.

But police reports naming Smith as a suspect, and other key material, were never disclosed to Pettiford before his trial, violating state and federal laws regulating the disclosure of evidence, known as discovery. Pettiford was convicted and sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.

After the evidence surfaced in an unrelated federal court case two years after the murder, Pettiford's attorney requested a new trial. Smith admitted arranging the killing. He refused to name the gunmen but said Pettiford was not involved.

Martz said yesterday that she will ask a judge to erase Pettiford's manslaughter conviction and grant a new trial based on information The Sun published Sunday. A recent review of the homicide file found that other evidence had been kept secret. Not only did Todd give detectives a statement within 24 hours of the murder, but he continued to provide them with information for at least three months afterward, the newspaper reported.

The file shows that Todd gave detectives an address for Smith -- the same address police had when they arrested him before the murder on unrelated charges. Todd also provided them with the names of three other men he believed to be participants in the slaying. No one else was ever charged.

Martz said yesterday that she never saw the material before arguing for a new trial in 1998.

Why the evidence was never disclosed is a question that pits prosecutors against the police.

Homicide Detective Bobby Patton testified in 1998 that he provided his entire homicide file to Pollack before the 1995 murder trial. Pollack said through her supervisor that Patton did not give her Todd's statement, but she declined to say whether he gave her other evidence that was never disclosed.

"Either the homicide detective or the prosecutor are lying," said Del. Peter Franchot of Montgomery County, who controls millions of dollars earmarked for the Baltimore Police Department and the state's attorney's office as chairman of an influential House subcommittee. "We need to get to the bottom of that. The one who is lying needs to be dismissed."

Earlier this month -- while The Sun was questioning the state's attorney's office about the Pettiford case and preparing to publish its report -- Pollack left the office. While sources said she was forced to resign, Deputy State's Attorney Haven H. Kodeck declined to discuss the circumstances of her departure after an 11-year career.

Pollack did not return phone messages seeking comment.

A police spokesman said yesterday that the department is standing by its detective.

"The department takes matters such as this seriously," said Robert W. Weinhold Jr. "Detective Patton's supervisors feel there is absolutely no reason to believe that any information contained in the case file wasn't turned over to the assistant state's attorney.

"The sworn testimony of Detective Patton speaks for itself."

Pub Date: 7/13/99

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