Murder charges reinstated

Judge to re-evaluate counts against four in 1995 killing

Delays had led to dismissal

Why cases postponed more important than times, panel agrees

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

Maryland's highest court has reinstated murder charges against four men whose cases were dismissed in January because of chronic trial delays in Baltimore's beleaguered courts.

The dismissal of the cases in the winter symbolized the near collapse of the city's criminal justice system, where cases had been postponed for as long as four years, and has prompted wide-scale reforms.

Now the cases against Dontae Spivey, Stacey Wilson, Jay Anderson and William Harrison are returning to the circuit courthouse.

The judge who dismissed the cases has been ordered to re-evaluate the charges after the Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision last month that the judge used as the legal basis to throw out the cases.

The state's attorney's office, pleased with the ruling, will determine whether the cases can be prosecuted. "We are going to review the case to see if it's a triable case," said Deputy State's Attorney Haven H. Kodeck, noting that a key witness was slain while the cases were pending for three years.

"We have to see if the witnesses are still there and available, and whether or not they are willing to testify."

Three of the four defendants are free on bail.

Kodeck said once he receives an order to reinstate the charges from the Court of Appeals, he will schedule a date for a hearing or a trial.

Spivey was convicted in May of killing a 17-year-old boy while he was out on bail from the first homicide case.

He is serving a life sentence plus 40 years.

The four men were charged in the October 1995 slaying of Shawn L. Suggs, 21, who tried to get away from his assailants by jumping into a passer-by's car during rush hour traffic on Gwynns Falls Parkway.

After 3 1/2 years of postponements, a Baltimore judge dismissed the murder charges in January, citing a recent ruling in a sex case by the Court of Special Appeals.

That ruling in the case of James T. Brown Jr. said his sex crime conviction should be erased because his right to a speedy trial under state law had been violated. His trial was delayed nine times in 16 months -- many times because no judge was available.

The Court of Special Appeals said the series of postponements in the case amounted to not setting a trial date.

But the Court of Appeals reversed that ruling July 28 in a decision that critics said carried political overtones. Court officials, including the state's chief judge, who wrote the opinion for the high court, have come under intense pressure to reform Baltimore's court system because serious criminal cases have been dismissed or resulted in little jail time because of chronic trial delays.

The high court decided that Brown's case should not be dismissed because it didn't matter how many times a case is delayed or how long it takes to come to trial. What mattered under state law, the court said, is why the case was delayed beyond the state's 180-day deadline and the length of the delay to the next trial date. The Court of Appeals said, in essence, the lack of a judge was a legitimate reason to delay the case.

On July 29, the Court of Appeals reinstated the murder charges citing its ruling in the sex case issued the day before. Though the ruling in the homicide cases was not a surprise, it came earlier than expected. Arguments before the court had been scheduled for September.

"Everybody knew it was going to be reversed," said Warren A. Brown, the attorney for Anderson.

Attorneys for the defendants say they have other issues to argue, which could damage the case. Brown said he plans to challenge the use of testimony from a witness who was killed during the three-year wait for a trial.

The witness had identified Anderson and Harrison as being involved in the killing, Brown said. But because the lawyers never had the chance to cross-examine the witness before he died, Brown said he will argue that his recorded testimony should not be allowed into evidence.

The lawyers also can argue that their clients' U.S. constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated.

But that is difficult to prove.

They must show how the delays damaged their clients' right to a fair trial, and they will also have to explain why they were partially to blame for several of the 15 postponement requests in the case.

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