3 freed again in '95 slaying

1 witness recanted, 1 died, 1 disappeared, and evidence got lost

Jury acquits in 90 minutes

Speedy trial case became symbol of city courts' dysfunction

March 16, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The three men whose dismissed murder case became a catalyst for change in Baltimore's justice system walked freely out of the city courthouse again yesterday after a jury cleared them of all charges.

It took more than four years for the case to get to trial, but the jury deliberated less than 90 minutes before deciding to acquit the men on charges that they shot Shawn L. Suggs, 21, in a 1995 attack that spilled into a North Baltimore parkway's rush-hour traffic.

"Too much stuff was missing," said jury forewoman Deanna Diggs. "There wasn't enough there to prove the guys did anything."

Just as they did a year ago when the case was dismissed, the defendants -- Jay Anderson, 31; William Harrison, 23; and Stacey Wilson, 30 -- slapped hands in exultation and hugged their lawyers and family members.

"Thank you," one defendant told the jurors.

The fourth defendant, Dontae Spivey, 22, who is serving life in prison for murdering another man while he was awaiting trial in this case, was not tried with the group because he did not have a lawyer.

Prosecutors say they will "evaluate" whether to try him for Suggs' murder.

Sedric Suggs, the victim's father, said he was pleased that the case got to court at all.

The prosecutor "did an excellent job, in my opinion, trying to put together a case with all the elapsed time, missing evidence, missing witnesses and recanting witnesses," Suggs said yesterday.

"We had our day in court, and that's all we could ask for."

The murder case was dismissed in January 1999 after a Baltimore circuit judge ruled that the three years of postponements had denied the defendants the right to a speedy trial under state law.

The case illustrated the chronic trial delays plaguing the court system and the need for reform.

The decision was later reversed and the defendants were charged again last summer.

Full of holes, case collapses

The collapse of the case in court over the past week illustrates other pitfalls in the criminal justice system that prosecutors, judges and others often encounter.

The state's key witness was an admitted heroin user who changed her story on the witness stand. Another witness had been murdered. A third witness, who had been kept in protective custody for three years while the case waited for trial, disappeared.

Police mistakenly destroyed most of the evidence in the case, including bullets and shell casings, the taped statement of one defendant and the victim's blood-stained clothing. At one point, the judge characterized actions by the lead homicide detective as "ineptitude."

Noise and boredom

One juror who sat inches from the witness stand routinely nodded off during testimony.

And the courtroom, which faced both Calvert and Fayette streets, was so filled with noise from the rumbling traffic below that the prosecutor had to stop her questioning once when a wailing ambulance passed.

"I can't compete with that," said Assistant State's Attorney Vickie Wash.

In a plea for justice, Wash implored the jury in her closing arguments to overlook the case's shortcomings.

"I look to you in a broken system," Wash told jurors. "You are the last place I can go."

"I cannot put a dead person on the [witness] stand. I gave you what I had."

Killing called vengeance

The state's theory was that the defendants killed Suggs on Oct. 17, 1995, in the 3400 block of Auchentoroly Terrace in retaliation for shooting one of their friends. All the defendants were charged with first-degree murder.

But the state's case was undermined on the first day when a key witness, the victim's girlfriend, who witnessed the shooting and helped police identify his assailants, took the witness stand and changed her story.

Nicole Ligons, 27, told the jurors she was high on heroin when she told police in 1995 that she "clearly saw" Spivey shoot her boyfriend.

She had no idea who killed him, she said, though she also had picked out two other defendants as men who resembled the attackers.

Wash tried to rebut her testimony by playing Ligons' tape-recorded statement to police for the jury.

As the tape played, Ligons, sitting on the witness stand, stared at the ceiling, stretched her arms over her head to inspect her armpits and picked her teeth with her fingernails.

Identification recanted

Wash confronted her with her signed statement when she picked Spivey out of police photos.

"That's him, Donte. He shot Shawn," Ligons wrote.

"When you wrote that in 1995, was it true?" Wash asked.

"I don't remember," Ligons responded.

"Would you have signed your name if it wasn't true?"

"It's a possibility."

Another critical witness, James Hines, who was 5 feet away when Suggs jumped into a truck to escape his attackers, identified all the defendants as being involved in the shooting.

Witnesses unavailable

But he was killed in a still-unsolved homicide in August 1998.

Prosecutors had to present Hines' testimony through a transcript of an earlier court hearing, read by a police officer. That left them unable to ask follow-up questions and vulnerable to an attack by the defense.

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