Murder case is back in court

Postponements led to earlier dismissal, call for justice reform

1995 fatal shooting

March 07, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The dismissed murder case that became the catalyst for extensive reform in Baltimore's justice system is headed for trial again, more than four years after the victim was gunned down in North Baltimore.

Prosecutors are forging ahead today although one witness is dead, another can't be found and police mistakenly destroyed ballistics evidence.

The case was thrown out in January 1999 after a judge ruled that the three years of postponements violated the defendants' right to a speedy trial under state law. But the state's top court later overturned the dismissal and the defendants, Dontae Spivey, 22, Jay Anderson, 31, William Harrison, 23, and Stacey Wilson, 30, were recharged this summer.

The case became emblematic of the problems troubling the Circuit Court, where trials were delayed for as long as four years and a ballooning caseload had crippled the system's ability to dispense justice.

The city court system has been under a microscope in the 14 months since the case was dismissed. The number of defendants awaiting trial in the Circuit Court has been halved, trial delays are limited and officials ranging from state lawmakers to judges to the new mayor are laboring to fix the system so that suspected killers don't escape trial.

The victim's father, Sedric Suggs, said he is "elated" that the suspects in the killing of his son will finally stand trial and that the botched case spurred reform.

"I am delighted that his death at this point has not been in vain," said Suggs, a job training specialist for the disabled. "I am excited about the idea of justice being served. It's that simple."

Jury selection is expected to begin today in the case against Anderson, Harrison and Wilson. The fourth defendant, Spivey -- who was convicted last spring of murdering another man while awaiting trial in this case -- will be prosecuted separately.

They are charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Shawn L. Suggs, 21, in October 1995 when he was ambushed in the 3400 block of Auchentoroly Terrace and shot four times, court records say.

Suggs tried to flee his assailants by jumping into a passing car during rush-hour traffic on Gwynns Falls Parkway, the records say.

Yesterday, attorneys for the defendants tried to have the case thrown out again, arguing that the delays violated the defendants' right to a speedy trial under the U.S. Constitution. But Circuit Judge William D. Quarles rejected their request, ruling that the defendants had not been hurt by the delays.

Quarles said that overcrowded dockets were responsible for much of the delay, and that prosecutors are the ones who suffered. One of their main witnesses is dead, killed in a home invasion in August 1998.

"The state would have to present that testimony through a paper transcript, rather than a live witness, which of course will be less compelling," Quarles said.

The slain witness, James Hines, testified at a hearing in 1997 that he saw Suggs jump into a car during rush-hour traffic on Gwynns Falls Parkway, being chased by a group of men, one of whom had a gun. One man held open the door, while another shot Suggs, he testified. He identified all four of the defendants as being involved in the slaying.

Another witness, Jo Ann Dow, can't be located. She identified Spivey and Wilson as running near the scene of the shooting. She vanished in February 1999, after the charges were dismissed. Police had kept her in a witness protection program from the time of the shooting, but she was kicked out because of drug problems, prosecutors said.

Detective Robert Patton testified yesterday that Dow entered drug treatment in New Jersey last summer, but did not complete the program. She has not been heard from since.

For this trial, prosecutors will have to use her testimony from a July 1997 hearing.

Expected to testify is Suggs' girlfriend, Nicole Ligons. She told police that Spivey shot Suggs, court records show. She also told police after reviewing photographs that the other two looked "like" men involved in the shooting.

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