Teen tormented by an erroneous charge of murder

Jailed six months in woman's killing, he seeks $18 million

April 23, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber | By Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

ELKTON -- Allen Chesnet doesn't sleep well at night -- unusual noises conjure up nightmares of police storming his house. He naps during the afternoons. A thick blanket hangs over his bedroom window, blocking the sun.

His room reeks of cigarette smoke. He puffs three packs a day. They calm his nerves. It wasn't always like this for the 19-year-old.

Chesnet's nightmares began when he should have been celebrating -- after being released from jail in late 1998. He had spent six months behind bars after being arrested by Maryland State Police in the killing of a neighbor.

Chesnet, then a 16-year- old with learning disabilities, was exonerated by DNA evidence that implicated another person, who later pleaded guilty. Last month, Chesnet filed an $18 million lawsuit against the state police and two local jails, claiming that police denied him access to a lawyer, lied to him, told him what to say and took advantage of his learning impairments. It also alleges that he was stabbed and raped while behind bars.

Police reports, search warrant affidavits and charging documents buttress some of Chesnet's claims about what happened during interrogations that left the teen-ager so confused that he confessed to a crime he didn't commit.

"I want the public to know what really happened," Chesnet said in an interview. "I want them to [reflect] on charges before they charge someone."

Chesnet's lawyer, Michael D. Smigiel, said the lawsuit will expose a shoddy investigation that focused too quickly on the wrong man.

"This is a perfect example of police attempting to make the circumstances fit the accused," Smigiel said.

State police investigators could not be reached for comment. State Police Superintendent Col. David B. Mitchell, noting the civil action, declined to talk about the case in detail. But Mitchell said the incident was "regretful" and he was "glad [Chesnet] was excluded from the finality of the case."

Chesnet still doesn't understand why state police targeted him so quickly -- and intently. On May 27, 1998, Chesnet was sitting on his porch, his hand bleeding after it was hit by a tool that fell from a shelf in his basement.

He did not know what had happened two doors away a day earlier, where Beulah Gay Honaker, 52, had been beaten, strangled and stabbed.

A television reporter approached Chesnet, noticed the blood and tipped off police. A state trooper picked up Chesnet a few minutes later and took him to the North East barracks.

Chesnet denied involvement in the killing, he said, adding that detectives showed him crime-scene photographs of Honaker's bloody body with her shirt pulled over her head.

That night, police let Chesnet go home, and he spent the next day with his mother, Chesnet said. Then, in the late afternoon, police picked him up for questioning again.

Cpl. Ronald W. Cullison, now a sergeant, and Tfc. Eric Steen began questioning Chesnet about 8:50 p.m., police reports show.

Chesnet gave Steen and Cullison a detailed accounting of his time May 26, according to a police report written by Cullison. But Cullison and Steen remained suspicious.

Chesnet initially didn't provide details about his whereabouts between 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. -- the period when police believed Honaker had been killed, according to police reports. When asked again, Chesnet said he had been watching television.

In an effort to force a confession, police used an age-old interrogation tactic: They lied.

Steen pretended to accept a call from the state police crime lab, police reports show. He said the lab had matched Chesnet's DNA to the blood found at the crime scene. Chesnet said he doesn't remember how he felt at that moment, but Cullison noted the boy's reaction in a report: "Allen put his head down and began to cry."

During the interrogations, Chesnet said, he was fed details about the crime by detectives, and the evidence piled up in his mind.

"In my head, I thought if I told them stuff, they would let me go," Chesnet said.

After learning his DNA matched blood at the scene, Chesnet asked for a lawyer, according to Cullison's report. Chesnet then quickly asked to speak with his mother.

"I told Allen that I would let him talk to his mother, but the minute he began lying to her, I would have to ask her to leave the room," Cullison wrote in a report.

Chesnet told his mother that the DNA at the scene matched his, police reports show. She asked Chesnet if he killed his neighbor. Her son said yes. Chesnet then told his mother more about the crime, Cullison noted in his report, and his mother gave police permission to ask her son more questions.

Cullison and Steen then began recording the interrogation about 11:20 p.m.

Chesnet said he went to visit Honaker, and she wanted "to do some stuff and I wouldn't do it," according to a tape-recording of the interrogation.

"So, she stabbed me in my hand," Chesnet said. "And she started flipping out and stuff, and I just turned around and stabbed her. I don't know how many times I did it."

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