Defendant freed

judge cites errors

Police lost file

man faced charge of attempted murder

Department reprimanded

Case is third harmed recently by violations of evidence rules

October 02, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

A man indicted on a charge of attempted first-degree murder walked free from Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday after a judge dismissed his case because of police mistakes.

Bassam A. Mohamed, 32, was supposed to go on trial Oct. 15. He was charged with slashing the neck of another man after they argued Dec. 10. If he had been convicted, Mohamed could have been sentenced to life in prison.

After police officers revealed yesterday that they had no idea where their file on Mohamed's case was, his indictment was dismissed.

The case marks the third time in a little more than two months that cases prosecuted by the city state's attorney's office have been dismissed or badly damaged because of violations of evidence rules, known as discovery.

Although prosecutors are often blamed for such foul-ups, police have contributed to the problems.

"Sometimes it's difficult to assess blame," said Judge John N. Prevas, who runs the city's discovery court, which was established to settle evidence disputes before they get to trial. "Everybody's got to get up to speed."

For five months, Mohamed's lawyer, Richard M. Karceski, had been asking city prosecutor Gary Schenker to hand over copies of statements made to homicide detectives by Mohamed and a key witness. The statements never materialized because Schenker never saw them.

Mohamed was accused of cutting the throat of Kenneth Massdin, 56, in the convenience store Mohamed owned in the 300 block of N. Eutaw St. Mohamed lives in the 7900 block of Langdon Lane.

According to a police report, the crime occurred after Massdin began arguing with a cashier about whether he ought to be charged tax on a bag of potato chips.

Massdin, who lives in the 3800 block of Ridgewood Ave., was severely injured. Mohamed was charged with two counts of attempted murder, two counts of assault and reckless endangerment. He had been free on bond.

The case went to Prevas' discovery court yesterday. "Your honor, the item that is in question, as far as I can tell ... they don't know where it is," Schenker said.

Officer Aaron Faulkner testified that he gave the investigation file to Officer Astarte Hunt. When she took the stand, Hunt said she never received it.

Karceski asked that the case be dismissed, saying he could not properly defend his client without the missing statements. Schenker said the case should continue and that the state's case was hurt even more by the lost evidence.

The dismissal was the first by Prevas. He strongly reprimanded the Police Department, noting its "lack of organization and diligence" in the case.

"I lay this squarely at the feet of former Commissioner Frazier, who by his policies essentially robbed the Police Department of mature, experienced people," Prevas said.

A number of officers quit after the former commissioner, Thomas C. Frazier, began a rotation policy that required officers, including homicide detectives, to take different positions within the department.

Prevas said he might reconsider his ruling if the evidence is recovered, and he advised the Police Department's legal affairs division to look into the case.

A police spokeswoman said late yesterday that she could not comment on the case because she did not know exactly what happened.

Deputy State's Attorney Haven H. Kodeck said he, too, did not know the facts of the case and could not say whether his office would appeal Prevas' decision.

Kodeck acknowledged that despite steps to improve recordkeeping in his office and the Police Department, the system could be improved.

"With the volume of cases that we handle and the Police Department handles -- and this is not an excuse, but just the facts -- these things happen," he said.

Losing important evidence is "the exception rather than the rule," he said, "but one time is too many."

After yesterday's hearing, Karceski said his client's rights had been violated by the Police Department's failure.

Starting this month, city police and prosecutors are to undergo additional training regarding discovery rules.

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