Accused killer of woman set free

Charges dropped

case weak, evidence missing, state says

January 29, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore state's attorney's office dropped charges yesterday against a man accused of killing a mother of three and trying to kill her companion, after prosecutors realized at the start of his trial that their case was weak and evidence was missing from their files.

James Bernard Wilder, 26, walked out of court yesterday a free man after prosecutors told the judge they did not have enough evidence to prove he fatally shot Robin Renae Jackson and wounded Roland K. Cox outside a popular Northwest Baltimore nightclub in March 2000.

"We had to dismiss the case based on the merits because the merits were gone," said Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Goldberg, team captain of the homicide unit.

But Wilder's lawyer, Kenneth W. Ravenell, called that explanation "spin," and said prosecutors dropped the case because of missing evidence.

"It's interesting they only learned the merits of the case after we exposed evidentiary violations," Ravenell said. "You would hope the state would know the merits of their case when they came to trial. It's a 2-year-old case."

Cox's father was incredulous. "Ain't no such thing as no documents getting lost," said Earl Planter, 68, whose 36-year-old son was shot nine times as he sat in a car with Jackson, 33, who was killed. "Something happened."

Lost or withheld evidence is a sensitive topic for city prosecutors and police, who have lost cases or had them badly compromised because of such violations.

Assistant State's Attorney Phillip Pickus discovered Friday - during a hearing on pretrial motions - that a colleague had conducted interviews with Cox. Cox reportedly identified Wilder as the killer, then recanted his statement.

A detective testified at a hearing about the interviews, surprising Pickus and Wilder's attorney. Records of the interviews were not turned over to defense lawyers, as is required by law.

The colleague who conducted the interviews with Cox, Cassandra L. Costley, was handling the case until the summer, when she left the homicide division.

Costley was called Friday and yesterday by Judge Carol E. Smith to testify about the missing documents. Costley said she placed her notes from the interviews in the file before she gave up the case.

Nobody could explain yesterday how the documents vanished. The mystery grew when more of Costley's notes that were in Pickus' file Friday were missing.

Pickus could not find them, and the judge called a recess so Pickus could look for them. He returned to the courtroom 20 minutes later, muttering, "My file is gone."

The judge summoned Pickus and Ravenell into her chamber and called for the proceedings to resume two hours later. When they did, Pickus told the court he did not have enough evidence to prosecute the case and asked for it to be dismissed.

Pickus said he could not comment on the case, but his supervisor, Goldberg, said the possible evidence violations had nothing to do with the decision to drop it.

Goldberg said the interviews were not vital because Cox, one of two eyewitnesses, changed his story in mid-interview.

"Yes, there should have been a hard copy of those interviews, and they should have been turned over to the defense," Goldberg said. "Technically, it's a discovery violation, but practically it doesn't mean anything. We wouldn't have used it anyway."

Wilder, who pleaded not guilty, said he was happy to go home after having a murder charge hanging over his head for two years. "I'm excited," he said. "But I'm all mad after two years of stress."

Cox, for his part, said he couldn't positively identify his shooter and is glad Wilder went free if he's not guilty.

But Cox's father still thinks something went wrong in the courtroom yesterday.

"Either way," Planter said, "someone got away with that one."

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