Evidence withheld, defense claims

Lawyers for men charged with killing 5 woman seek dismissal

January 24, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Lawyers for four men charged in one of the worst mass killings in Baltimore history asked a Circuit Court judge yesterday to dismiss the cases against their clients, alleging that prosecutors withheld evidence in violation of state law.

The attorneys argued that prosecutors did not give them witness statements until the eve of trial -- information that suggests the five women killed in a Northeast Baltimore rowhouse in December 1999 were slain by other people.

Prosecutors "withheld this until the last possible moment, and now I am handicapped," said Assistant Public Defender Bridget Shepherd, who represents Ismail Malik Wilson, one of the four men charged.

"I can't give the defendant the defense he is entitled to," he said.

The laws governing the exchange of evidence, known as discovery, require that prosecutors immediately disclose all information that could help prove a defendant's innocence.

Judge David Ross ordered prosecutors to disclose the statements last week.

Yesterday, he heard the arguments to dismiss the case. He could rule on the matter today.

At issue are two statements to police investigators that recount conversations with Ronald P. McNeil, an eyewitness and the only survivor of the shooting in the 3500 block of Elmley Ave.

McNeil's mother, sister and niece were among the women killed.

Two people told police that McNeil believed men other than the defendants were responsible for the murders.

Also, a woman told police that McNeil tied up his son with duct tape to interrogate him after the slayings and that he wanted another man involved in the attack to be killed, according to the statements.

McNeil is in city jail, awaiting trial on murder charges in what police have described as a revenge shooting for the Belair-Edison killings.

In addition, the defense lawyers argued that prosecutors did not disclose until recently that McNeil had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for killing his grandfather in Florida in 1983.

Defense lawyers said they should have the chance to investigate the new information.

"I am shocked," said William W. Kanwisher, who represents Tariq A. Malik.

"I have many, many questions after listening to [a taped witness statement]," Kanwisher said. "I think the state's conduct ... has been egregious."

Assistant State's Attorney Lawrence Doan argued yesterday that the statements were not admissible at trial and therefore did not have to be disclosed to the defense. He would not say yesterday what role he expects McNeil to play in the case.

Also on trial, in addition to Wilson and Malik, are Robert Nay Bryant and Tavon McCoy.

The four are accused of killing five women on Dec. 5, 1999. The women are Mary Helen Collien, 56; her daughter, Mary McNeil Matthews, 39, who owned the house; and Collien's granddaughter, Makisha Jenkins, 18.

Also killed were family friends Trennell Alston, 26, and Lavanna Spearman, 23.

Police said the shootings were intended as a message to McNeil's relatives and friends who were selling up to 2 pounds of drugs a day from the Elmley Avenue rowhouse.

The dispute that led to the shootings revolved around either a drug debt or a stolen package of narcotics, police said.

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