Missing evidence, abundant questions

Disclosure failures surface in wrongful murder conviction

August 23, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,Sun Staff

The demand for a new trial filed last week on behalf of a man wrongfully convicted of murder poses serious questions for Baltimore prosecutors and police: Who failed to disclose key evidence in the case, and how did evidence mysteriously surface four years after the homicide?

Detectives blame the state's attorney's office. Prosecutors blame the police. But so far, few answers have been provided about who is responsible for keeping the evidence from Antoine Jerome Pettiford.

"If ever there was a case which cried out for the mercy of the court, this is the case," Pettiford's attorney, Michelle M. Martz, wrote in the motion for a new trial filed Friday.

Martz's motion alleges that critical documents that could have helped clear Pettiford were not turned over. The information, which surfaced last month when The Sun examined Pettiford's case, is the latest in a series of revelations about evidence that was withheld from Pettiford. Martz successfully argued in July 1998 that evidence violations meant her client's first-degree murder conviction should be erased.

Martz is seeking to have a manslaughter conviction stricken from Pettiford's record -- a plea bargain he accepted so prosecutors would release him from jail.

If a new trial is granted, it could go a long way toward determining why the evidence was kept from the defense and who is to blame.

Officials at the state's attorney's office won't say what investigation they have done into the case, which was prosecuted by Nancy Pollack. Last month, while The Sun was questioning the state's attorney's office about the Pettiford case and preparing to publish its report, Pollack was forced to resign, say sources within the office. State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, saying that personnel matters are confidential, said only that Pollack is no longer with the office.

Pollack had told her supervisors that she never saw one of the key documents that a judge said should have been turned over to the defense.

Baltimore police say they questioned the detective who investigated the Pettiford case, Bobby Patton, and they believe his contention that he turned over the information.

So what happened?

The case began on April 30, 1994, when Oscar Edward Lewis Jr. was shot and killed on an East Baltimore street corner. The next day, Lewis' best friend, Dante Lamont Todd, provided homicide detectives with a detailed statement about the circumstances leading to the murder.

Todd told Detective Patton on May 1, 1994, that a man nicknamed "Meat" had threatened to kill him over missing drug money and that Lewis, while serving as Todd's bodyguard, was murdered as an act of revenge.

Todd returned twice to the homicide division with information. On July 7 and July 16, 1994, in interviews with detectives, Todd provided an address for "Meat," along with the names of other suspected gunmen in the shooting.

None of the information Todd provided was disclosed to Pettiford's first attorney, Walter Balint, before the trial, and it appears that the leads were not seriously investigated. Pettiford was convicted in June 1995 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The case began to unravel in 1996 when federal agents broke a cocaine and heroin ring in Baltimore. Two of the men arrested told the agents and federal prosecutors that they knew who killed Lewis -- Demetrius Smith, a man known on the streets as "Meat."

In May 1996, Smith pleaded guilty in federal court to arranging Lewis' murder. While refusing to name the men who helped him, Smith insisted that Pettiford had had nothing to do with the slaying.

Armed with the revelations from the federal case, Pettiford's new attorney, Michelle M. Martz, filed an appeal. She asked to see the police file under Maryland's public records act.

The city's legal department, which represents the Baltimore Police Department, agreed to disclose portions of the file to Martz.

The file provided to Martz included several previously undisclosed police reports, but it did not contain Todd's May 1, 1994, statement or notes that detectives took during the July 1994 interviews -- items that city lawyers say are routinely disclosed to fulfill public records requests in criminal cases on appeal.

During the appellate hearing last summer in Baltimore Circuit Court, Patton disclosed that Todd had given him a statement on

May 1, 1994, the day after the murder. He also said he provided the statement to Pollack, the prosecutor assigned to the case.

Martz said she was shocked by the news of Todd's statement. She told Judge Ellen M. Heller, who was presiding over the hearing, that she never knew of its existence until Patton testified.

Patton later insisted in an interview with The Sun that he had turned the statement over to Pollack and assumed that it had been given to Martz. Pollack told her supervisors that she never saw it.

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