Death-row inmate wins a new trial

State's high court reverses 2 first-degree murder convictions

Cellmate's testimony at issue

Man was found guilty in slaying of woman and alleged accomplice

February 06, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A Woodlawn man sentenced to death in the killing of a Baltimore County woman during a break-in at her home won a new trial yesterday from the state's highest court.

The Maryland Court of Appeals reversed two first-degree murder convictions against Clarence Conyers Jr. in the killing of the woman and his alleged accomplice. The court ruled that county prosecutors did not turn over evidence that might have helped the defense, as required by state law.

Conyers was sentenced to death by a Wicomico County jury in 1998 in the killing of Wanda Johnson, the mother of his former girlfriend. She was shot five times Oct. 21, 1994, when she interrupted a burglary at her home in the 7100 block of Bexhill Road in northwestern Baltimore County.

The same jury sentenced Conyers to life without parole in the killing of his alleged accomplice, Lawrence M. Bradshaw, 22, of the Gwynn Oak area, two days after the burglary. The trial was moved to Wicomico County at Conyers' request.

Conyers was convicted after his cellmate, Charles Johnson, testified that Conyers confessed to him. A police detective also testified that Johnson did not ask for favors when he volunteered to testify.

But the court ruled 5-2 yesterday that Conyers is entitled to a new trial because prosecutors failed to disclose to defense lawyers that Johnson had refused to sign a statement that he gave to police until he had a written plea agreement guaranteeing him a reduced sentence.

"Defense counsel was entitled to explore and argue from all of the pertinent evidence as to Johnson's bias and credibility," Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. wrote in a 46-page ruling.

Johnson, who was awaiting trial on armed robbery charges, was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of conspiracy to commit robbery and was released two days after Conyers' trial with time served, according to Harrell's opinion.

Judge Dale R. Cathell wrote in dissent that prosecutors disclosed Johnson's plea agreement before trial and that his refusal to sign a statement before securing a reduced sentence was unimportant.

"The majority's opinion, in this third examination of Conyers' conviction, is a result looking for justification that, in actuality, does not exist," Cathell wrote.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor said that Johnson initially gave a voluntary statement to a police detective, but refused to sign it without a plea agreement. Johnson reached an agreement in a later meeting with prosecutors - which was disclosed to the defense before trial, she said.

But Johnson's refusal to sign a statement was disclosed to prosecutors only when the detective was specifically asked during a post-conviction hearing, she said.

She said that she agreed with the dissenting opinion.

"I think this is a stretch by the court, but we're going to retry the case," she said.

Robert W. Biddle, Conyers' lawyer, said the ruling means Conyers will be moved off death row and given a new trial.

He added that the decision also means that open file discovery alone - when prosecutors make all their written material available to the defense before trial - may not be sufficient if there is additional evidence not contained in the state's file.

"The state's attorneys did turn over the written plea agreement," Biddle said. "But the ruling says the fact that the man was trolling for a deal was important enough that the defense should have been told about it."

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