Questions follow Pettiford ruling

Dismissal of charges leaves police without suspect in killing

June 17, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The dismissal of charges against Antoine J. Pettiford this week may end his quest for justice, but it raises new questions about who shot Oscar E. Lewis and whether his killers will stand trial.

It also creates fresh doubts about the handling of the case by prosecutors and Detective Robert L. Patton after the judge ruled that Patton "deliberately" misled the defense.

Federal prosecutors and Baltimore police have long suspected that one of the two men who gunned Lewis down at an East Baltimore intersection in April 1994 is Duraye Maurice Cole, a drug dealer known as "Money." But it appears that little investigation is planned into solving the Lewis murder that prosecutors quietly cleared Pettiford of Tuesday morning, ending his five-year battle for vindication.

Deputy State's Attorney Haven H. Kodeck said the case is "open" and "subject to further investigation." He refused to answer questions about when prosecutors might begin to build a case, particularly against Cole, who is scheduled to be released from prison on an unrelated charge in October 2004.

Pettiford's attorney, Michelle Martz-Bowles, called on city police and prosecutors to track down the killers and to examine every case Patton has worked on to make sure other people were not wrongfully convicted.

"You are at the mercy of the state's attorney's office and the Police Department to do the right thing," Martz-Bowles said. "That's why [the police] are there, to protect and to serve. Prosecutors are supposed to be seekers of the truth; they are not there to just protect a conviction."

"How many other Antoine Pettifords are there out there?" Martz-Bowles asked.

Pettiford, 29, was wrongfully convicted in June 1995 of first-degree murder in Lewis' death because police and prosecutors, in violation of state and federal laws, never disclosed evidence that could have helped his defense.

A Baltimore judge erased Pettiford's murder conviction two years ago and struck down a manslaughter plea bargain three weeks ago, ruling that continued evidence violations made the case "a miscarriage of justice."

Sgt. Scott Rowe, a Baltimore police spokesman, said homicide commanders have found that Patton did nothing wrong. "There won't be any disciplinary action or administrative action," Rowe said. "It doesn't warrant any."

On May 22, Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller found that Patton tried to dupe Martz-Bowles by not informing her of evidence that would help prove Pettiford's innocence.

At issue were statements Patton took from Lewis' best friend, Dante Todd, the day after the killing in April 1994. The statements attributed the killing to Demetrius Smith - who later pleaded guilty to arranging the shooting - and said two others, including Cole, were involved.

The statements were not given to Pettiford.

Heller was incredulous about Patton's testimony last month that he had given Martz-Bowles a stack of documents in August 1998 with statements from Todd on top because he knew of their importance.

"Suddenly this detailed statement is on top of the pieces of paper," Heller said. "It just appeared?"

The original prosecutor in the case, Nancy B. Pollack, was forced to resign last year as The Sun was preparing an article about Pettiford and the evidence his lawyers never saw.

Heller's ruling May 22 set in motion the dismissal of the charges. Heller decided that police and prosecutors had continually violated evidence laws and that Pettiford had entered into a plea bargain - while maintaining his innocence - just to get out of jail without knowing all the information that could vindicate him. She granted him the right to a new trial.

That meant prosecutors had two options: retry the case or drop the charges. They chose the latter, appearing before Heller on Tuesday morning and dropping the charges without notice to Pettiford, who found out from his lawyer a day later.

The authorities' suspicions about the possible role of Cole is based on evidence compiled by federal prosecutors and Baltimore police.

Much of the information came out of a federal investigation into Smith, the man who pleaded guilty in the killing of Lewis.

A witness for the prosecution testified before a grand jury that Smith rounded up four men in a light blue car to go shoot Todd and Lewis because he was angry that Todd had fired bullets at his Acura Legend in a drug dispute.

One of those men was Cole, the witness, Roberto Terrero testified. Terrero said Smith bragged about the killing afterward, identifying Cole as a participant.

Smith "said Money did it for him," Terrero testified.

At Smith's sentencing in 1996, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert R. Harding told the judge that he thought Cole was one of the gunmen. Smith's refusal to testify against him meant that a killer could go unpunished and an innocent man, Pettiford, would pay the price, he said.

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