No witness, no trial, no more birthdays

January 30, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

It was a killing that galvanized a city. A 3-year-old boy was caught in cross-fire between two rival drug dealers as he waited for his birthday haircut in a West Baltimore barbershop.

People who never knew James Smith III built a shrine to him. Then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke visited James' parents, saying city officials were "trying to make sense out of a senseless act."

The man convicted of killing him, Maurice Blevins, 22, was sent to prison for the rest of his life, plus 20 years, for the 1997 killing.

Three years earlier, Blevins had been accused of shooting a man, but the charges were dropped in a case that illustrates how prosecutors can be hamstrung by uncooperative witnesses and how the city is losing the fight against violent crime.

In June 1994, police saw a man named Willie Harris, then 28, being chased and shot at in the 100 block of S. Stockton St. Harris was hit once in the left side.

Harris gave police Blevins' first name and his street name -- "Pooh" -- and picked him out of an array of police mug shots.

Then Harris disappeared. Prosecutor Nancy Pollack sent him letters, asked the police to track him down and talked to family members who said they didn't know where he was. She dropped the case a year later.

But even if Pollack had found him, he would not have been much help.

The Sun recently located Harris, living with his parents in West Baltimore. Harris said in an interview that Blevins, a man he has known since childhood, did not shoot him. Harris said he gave a sworn statement to Blevins' lawyer, Brian Murphy, clearing him. But Murphy said he knew nothing of any such document.

Harris, who has a lengthy criminal record including convictions for concealing a deadly weapon and assault, was asked how he could have mistakenly picked out the photo of a man he had known for so long. He responded: "I was intoxicated at the time. It could have been anyone."

Cheryl Whittington, James Smith's mother, still mourns the loss of her child. Told of Blevins' prior attempted-murder charge and Harris' recantation, she shook her head. "It's crazy. If this guy hadn't changed his story [Blevins] could have been behind bars," she said. "My son still could have been here."

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