Jessamy says she'll drop case against Austin

Statement concludes 27-year ordeal of former inmate

Reversal by state's attorney

January 04, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

In a striking turnaround, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy announced yesterday that she was dropping the case against Michael Austin, finally ending the ordeal of a man who spent 27 years in prison on a faulty murder conviction.

The announcement came one week after Baltimore Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes overturned a jury's 1975 verdict and Austin's life sentence, saying his trial was "plagued" by errors.

Austin has always maintained his innocence, and in the past year attracted influential supporters who criticized Jessamy for opposing his release. Because virtually no evidence against Austin remains, retrying the case would have proved difficult for Jessamy. However, she could have challenged Byrnes' ruling.

At an afternoon news conference at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, Jessamy did not explain how she came to her decision and made no mention of his guilt or innocence.

In a statement that lasted just under 1 1/2 minutes, she said: "I have carefully reviewed Judge Byrnes' decision and have met with my staff relative to all aspects of the case. It is my decision not to retry this matter and I will not seek an appeal of Judge Byrnes' decision. My office will have no further comment on this case."

Her only hint as to what motivated her came in her opening sentence: "We're meeting here today in this spot because, for over a century, this courthouse has served as a symbol for the protection of an individual's precious liberties," Jessamy said.

The brief statement was a carefully worded reversal for Jessamy, whose office had argued against reopening Austin's case after his attorneys filed a motion to do so in March.

Austin was at the office of Centurion Ministries in Princeton, N.J., the organization that took up his cause in 1996, when he got the news yesterday that he was officially free. Minutes after Jessamy's announcement, he removed his name from a large magnetic board listing Centurion's open cases, and his lawyers were planning a big celebration party in Baltimore next week.

"I'm excited, I'm very excited," Austin said. "You know, all along I knew that justice would prevail."

Austin said he had tried not to worry too much about what Jessamy would do. "I had enough on my mind as it was," he said. "The fact that Jessamy made the statement, well, it'll all be processed whenever it connects with me. I do know that I'm out, and I do know that I'm free. I'm just trying to take it one day at a time."

He sounded calmer than James C. McCloskey, Centurion's president. "Where does one begin, I mean, I'm just ... I'm delighted, I'm elated, but it was 27 years in coming," he said. "It closes a circle. Justice has finally come. Pure, true justice."

Imprisoned for '74 murder

Austin, 53, was imprisoned for the 1974 murder of Roy Kellam, who was working as a security guard at the Crown Food Market in East Baltimore when two gunmen came in, shot Kellam in the heart and robbed the store of $3,970.

The case against Austin consisted of one eyewitness' testimony and a business card that purportedly linked Austin to the crime.

A Crown Food clerk named Jackie Robinson said Austin was the shooter. Robinson died of a heroin overdose in 1997, but his family said that before he died he admitted to falsely identifying Austin. In addition, at the trial the prosecution had presented Robinson as an earnest college student. But Austin's lawyers said that Robinson had been in trouble with police, and that he used and sold drugs and was a high school dropout.

The other evidence against Austin was a card that a detective said he found in Austin's wallet. Written on the back of the card was the name Horrace Herbert, Austin's supposed accomplice. Austin had testified that he didn't know Herbert, making him look like a liar. But prosecutors eventually declared Herbert innocent and dropped their case against him, meaning Austin's alleged connection to him was irrelevant.

These evidentiary problems, among others, led Byrnes to write that Austin's case presented "the inescapable conclusion that he was denied a fair trial."

The ruling clearly influenced Jessamy's decision yesterday. For nearly a year she has said, publicly and privately, that Austin should remain locked up.

Austin's lawyers had approached the city State's Attorney's Office many times asking for help. Although the case predated Jessamy's administration, she took a hard-line stance. In court filings, prosecutor Sharon A.H. May opposed Austin's request for a judge's review, writing, "Austin sets forth no smoking gun, no scientific evidence" to prove his innocence.

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