City's court woes grow

After two big setbacks for prosecutors, trial in mass killing put off

`A kick in the gut'

Previous losses show that jurors distrust police, Jessamy says

January 25, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Having just lost two highly publicized murder cases in the past week, Baltimore prosecutors risk losing another after a judge ordered a long delay yesterday in the trial of suspects in one of the city's worst mass killings.

The case against four men charged in the killing of five women in Northeast Baltimore in December 1999 will be postponed eight months, which could result in its dismissal, the judge said. He acted after prosecutors failed to promptly disclose evidence to defense attorneys.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said during a news conference yesterday that she will take steps to bring the case to trial sooner.

She called the conference to address issues raised by the two recent acquittals of men charged in the killing Officer Kevon M. Gavin and dental student Christian W. Ludwig. She said those cases highlight deep community mistrust of police and a problem of unsophisticated juries.

Jessamy said prosecutors presented "overwhelming" evidence for convictions in both cases, which ended in acquittals. Gavin died after a shooting suspect, Eric D. Stennett, crashed into him while fleeing police at a high speed.

Ludwig was stabbed as he tried to retrieve a purse stolen from his friend. The suspect, David Terry, was acquitted of all charges but one Tuesday. Yesterday, prosecutors dropped the final charge after jurors voted 11 to one to acquit.

Because most of the witnesses in the cases were police officers, the verdicts highlighted a serious distrust of law enforcement, she said.

The verdicts showed "a palpable bias against police officers in the community," Jessamy said. "It reveals to us a belief that police lie, manufacture evidence and are not to be trusted.

"We need to look at the biases that exist and how we can better recognize those so that we can assure that our community which needs justice gets justice," she added.

She said she wants to lengthen jury selection so that prosecutors have more time to ask in-depth questions to determine whether jurors have prejudice, and bring in consultants to train prosecutors how to detect problem jurors. She has also offered to help teach police officers how to build strong cases for juries.

In addition, she wants to educate jurors about the justice system.

"It is crucial, crucial that our community be educated and trained and that people who are called to participate in the jury process understand the role that they are being asked to play," Jessamy said. "These verdicts were a kick in the gut, but we see it as an opportunity to make our system better."

Jurors and police officers, however, may have nothing to do with the fate of the case against four men accused in the Northeast Baltimore mass slaying.

Judge David B. Mitchell, chief of the city's criminal docket, postponed the case for eight months - until Sept. 4 - after it came to light that prosecutors had not disclosed witness statements to defense attorneys in the case.

Mitchell refused to grant what is known as "good cause" for the postponement - essentially his stamp of approval - because he felt that prosecutors could have avoided the delay by disclosing the evidence earlier.

That means the case could be at risk for dismissal on grounds that it violates the defendants' rights for a speedy trial when it comes up again in September. By that point, the defendants will have been waiting nearly two years for a trial. Long trial delays can be excused if a judge approves them, but a large portion of the delay in this case will not have been.

"Unfortunately, the ultimate sanction [may be] dismissal of this case," Mitchell said at the hearing yesterday. "This is ridiculous. This is not a possession-of-marijuana case ... so why didn't we take an ounce of precaution to prevent this horrible result?"

The men on trial are Robert Bryant, Travon McCoy, Tariq A. Malik and Ismail Malik Wilson. Police said the killings were meant to send a message to the women's relatives who were involved in a drug dispute.

The statements at issue were given to police months ago and suggest men other than the defendants as the killers of the women in the Elmley Avenue rowhouse. The judge scheduled to hear the trial ruled yesterday morning that the prosecutors' last minute disclosure of the statements did not amount to prosecutorial misconduct.

But he referred the case to Mitchell, who oversees all postponement requests, so that defense attorneys could have more time to investigate the information raised.

At the postponement hearing, Mitchell said the trial judge thought the statements were "marginally exculpatory" but should have been turned over to the defense.

When Assistant State's Attorney Lawrence Doan suggested to Mitchell that the trial be scheduled for next week to give the defense some time to investigate, the judge criticized him.

"You are not getting it at all," Mitchell said. "You can't expect this to roll over from one day to the next."

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