State seeks reinstatement of 1994 murder conviction

DNA issues led judge to order new trial

June 13, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

An assistant attorney general asked a state appeals court yesterday to reinstate the murder conviction of a one-time Southern High basketball star who had been sentenced to life without parole for the rape and slaying of an Annapolis woman.

In a ruling last year that infuriated Anne Arundel County prosecutors, Circuit Judge Pamela L. North found that attorneys for Alvin Winslow Gross bungled their handling of genetic testing issues in the 1994 trial. Prosecutors immediately challenged North's order for a new trial, complaining that North, a former criminal defense attorney, considered the case with what she believed would have been a better trial strategy than that used by Gross' attorneys.

How crucial the DNA evidence was to the conviction of the Shady Side resident became the central question for the three-judge panel of the Court of Special Appeals.

Assistant Attorney General Celia Anderson Davis argued that the DNA evidence was not as critical as Gross' appellate lawyer, Fred Warren Bennett, claimed it was. She said it showed only that Gross could not be ruled out as having had sex with Margaret Courson, 26, who was found fatally shot early Dec. 19, 1993, in a Tracys Landing cornfield.

But Bennett argued that the DNA results forced Gross to testify and that the decision to have him testify was solidified only after jurors heard about the DNA. The defendant told jurors that he and Courson had had consensual sex in his truck Dec. 17, 1993. Genetic testing results were the only evidence to establish a time frame for when Gross might have been with the victim, Bennett argued.

Bennett said defense lawyer Peter S. O'Neill failed to challenge the complex DNA evidence in several ways that might have gotten it thrown out. O'Neill did not investigate his own DNA expert, who was found unqualified to be an expert by the trial judge, he said. Nor he did ask the prosecution's DNA experts to explain what percentage of the population could not be excluded from having had sex with Courson.

He said Gross, 21 at the time, then had to take the witness stand, a point questioned yesterday by Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr. "Wasn't there a lot of other evidence that almost required the defendant to testify?" asked Moylan.

In her brief, Davis said there was a "mountain of physical evidence" and testimony against Gross.

At the trial, two people testified that Gross told them his gun had "a life on it." Fibers from Gross' truck were on Courson's clothes, and writing in a notebook in Gross' car appeared to be Courson's.

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