Ruling on evidence clears way for trial in 1978 killing

January 31, 2001|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore plumber will go on trial for murder more than five years after his arrest, and 23 years after the killing of Mark Schwandtner, a Towson construction worker who was beaten and thrown over a railroad trestle into the Gunpowder River.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Christian M. Kahl has ruled that a tape recording that allegedly contains a confession by John S. Derry - one of three suspects in Schwandtner's death - can be introduced as evidence. Prosecutors have said the tape is crucial to their case.

A trial date has not been set. Derry, 47, is charged with first-degree murder. He has been free on bail since his arrest in March 1995.

Kahl threw out the tape as evidence in 1997 because a Baltimore County police officer neglected to glue an identification number to the tape recorder used by an undercover informant working for the FBI.

The Maryland Court of Appeals considered the case for three years before ruling last year that it had no jurisdiction to overturn the decision.

The Baltimore County state's attorney's office then asked Kahl to reconsider allowing the tape to be introduced at trial. On Monday, he reversed himself, based on subsequent legal rulings.

Schwandtner, 22, was killed in 1978, but the first break in the case didn't come until 1996, when Derry was arrested, along with William R. Isaacs of Baltimore and Ronnie G. Rodgers of Georgia.

Isaacs was convicted of second-degree murder in 1997 and sentenced to 30 years. His conviction was reversed by the Court of Special Appeals on the grounds that Kahl had failed to show defense lawyers in the case a note sent to him by the jury. Isaacs is in the Baltimore County Detention Center awaiting a retrial.

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