Stealthy correction of double injustice

Manslaughter case dropped, but man freed earlier not told

Evidence twice withheld

June 15, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Antoine Pettiford's five-year battle to clear his name in a murder case that a judge called a miscarriage of justice is finally over.

Prosecutors officially dismissed the charge against him Tuesday.

But just as police and prosecutors never told Pettiford about evidence that would have spared him the murder conviction, they didn't tell him he'd won.

"After all the things I have been through with them and I couldn't be there? When the case was dismissed?" an incredulous Pettiford said yesterday after learning the news from his lawyer.

"That's four years I spent in jail."

Pettiford, 29, who has steadfastly maintained his innocence and passed a polygraph test administered at the request of The Sun, said he was very excited that the homicide charge had finally been dropped.

"I thought maybe I would never get it over with," Pettiford said.

His lawyer, Michelle Martz-Bowles, who has been fighting for two years to get prosecutors to clear Pettiford, said she was "elated."

"Justice finally prevailed," Martz-Bowles said.

There is no legal requirement to notify defendants when a case is being dropped. But Pettiford's co-counsel, Fred W. Bennett, said he called prosecutor Donald J. Giblin several times for a case update, after Judge Ellen M. Heller ruled three weeks ago that continued violations of evidence procedures gave Pettiford the right to a new trial.

Giblin finally called Bennett after the case had been dropped.

"With all Antoine has been through, it would have been appropriate for him to have been there" in the courtroom when the charges were dismissed, Martz-Bowles said.

Pettiford was convicted in June 1995 of murdering Oscar Edward Lewis Jr. in a gangland-style shooting in East Baltimore.

The next year, another man pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to arranging the crime. That man, Demetrius Smith, told his lawyer he had never heard of Pettiford.

In July 1998, in Circuit Court, Heller erased Pettiford's murder conviction after deciding that police and prosecutors had not revealed critical evidence to Pettiford's lawyer before the trial that could have helped his defense.

The evidence was a statement that Detective Robert L. Patton took from Lewis' best friend, Dante Todd, in May 1994 that pinned the murder on Smith.

Heller granted Pettiford the chance for a new trial, but Pettiford, distrustful of the system and eager to be released from prison, accepted a plea bargain that allowed him to go free that day while maintaining his innocence.

In exchange, a manslaughter conviction was placed on his record.

What Pettiford and Martz-Bowles didn't know in July 1998 was that even more evidence that would have helped clear him had not been turned over. That evidence came to light in July 1999 when The Sun reviewed Pettiford's case.

The newspaper found records at the city courthouse that showed Detective Patton had continued contact with Todd and that Todd had provided Patton with names and details about two others involved in the shooting on July 7 and July 16, 1994.

That information was never given to Pettiford's attorney, despite Heller's 1998 order that all evidence that could help Pettiford be revealed.

Charging that the new information showed a continued violation of evidence rules, Martz-Bowles and Bennett asked last summer that the manslaughter conviction be erased.

Martz-Bowles said she would never have allowed Pettiford to accept the plea bargain if she had known about the additional evidence.

Judge Heller agreed.

She erased the manslaughter conviction May 22, saying it would be a "miscarriage of justice" to let it stand.

In her ruling, Heller criticized city prosecutors and police but singled out actions by Patton as a "deliberate" attempt to mislead Pettiford's defense.

Heller's decision left prosecutors with two options: retry the case, which would likely end in acquittal, or drop the charges.

They chose the latter but were reticent about the dismissal of the charges yesterday. Giblin did not return calls seeking comment. Patton could not be reached.

Deputy State's Attorney Haven H. Kodeck said yesterday afternoon that he was not sure of the status of the case.

At 9 p.m. he confirmed that the charges had been dropped. Asked why prosecutors did not inform Pettiford beforehand, Kodeck said: "We didn't see any need to bring him in and create any kind of fanfare. So we just did it."

Heller said prosecutors dropped the case in her courtroom early Tuesday morning.

Neither Giblin nor Mark P. Cohen, chief of the homicide division, who weren't the original prosecutors but argued to maintain the manslaughter conviction, was there. Nor was Pettiford or his attorneys.

Prosecutors "just came into open court and [dropped] the case on the record," Heller said. "No reason was given."

Kodeck said last night that prosecutors decided that they "could not go forward with the case" on a retrial.

Bennett said he is considering filing a civil suit against police and prosecutors for the wrongful conviction of Pettiford and his imprisonment for four years.

"How do you put a price tag on freedom?" Bennett asked.

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