Murder verdict reduced in retrial

Evidence destroyed after first conviction complicated the case

March 07, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore jury convicted yesterday a Pikesville man of second-degree murder in the killing of his 19-year-old pregnant mistress in a retrial complicated because police had mistakenly destroyed the physical evidence from the original trial.

Yesterday's verdict against Keith Alexander Brown - originally sentenced to life without parole and in prison for the past seven years - outraged members of victim Makeya Chante Stewart's family. The original first-degree murder conviction was set aside on appeal, which granted him a retrial.

"This was a simple cut-and-dry murder case. We don't even know how he got another trial," said Amia Eubanks, 19, Stewart's cousin. "He should have gotten first-degree. He knew what he was doing. He had time to plan this."

The 12-member jury was not able to see evidence presented at his original trial in 1996 - including clothing and a .380-caliber semiautomatic gun with Brown's fingerprints and Stewart's blood - because police mistakenly destroyed it.

After deliberating for almost two days, the jury decided that Brown killed Stewart, a church youth leader, by shooting her eight times in a West Baltimore alley, without premeditation. Brown, who will be sentenced March 13, could receive a maximum of 50 years in prison. He must serve at least half of that before he could be released on parole.

Members of Stewart's family, who thought Brown would never be let out of prison, shrieked as the verdict was read in the courtroom yesterday. Several members were led out by sheriff's deputies, and the room reached such a high emotional pitch that an assistant state's attorney collapsed in tears into a family huddle.

According to court documents, Stewart and Brown met in 1994, before Brown was married. He kept his marriage a secret for months, but after Stewart found out about it, the two continued seeing each other. Stewart was six weeks' pregnant with Brown's child at the time of the murder, court records show.

Brown was convicted in 1996 of the murder, but won a new trial from Maryland's Court of Appeals because of his wife's testimony.

His wife, who knew about the affair and had told Brown and Stewart to stop seeing each other several times, testified at the first trial that Brown confessed to her that he killed Stewart hours after Stewart was murdered Sept. 10, 1995. According to Maryland law, such an admission is confidential between a husband and wife and not admissible in court unless the spouse gives permission.

Brown's lawyer, Eugene M. Whissel II, said after yesterday's verdict that he needs to talk to his client about whether to appeal the decision.

"The verdict was perhaps a compromise among jurors who thought there was reasonable doubt he did not commit this crime," Whissel said.

Whissel argued in a pretrial motion that the case should be thrown out because police destroyed evidence after Brown's first trial. Whissel was not Brown's lawyer during that trial.

Judge David Ross, who heard the case, ruled that the physical evidence was not necessary to continue with the trial. But Whissel said his client's right to a fair trial was "abridged."

"You have to wonder about the credibility of those who destroyed the evidence," said Whissel, a former Baltimore police officer. "When the police destroy evidence they say they collected, you have to question every bit of their investigation."

Ed Koch, the director of the city's police crime lab, said a lead detective on the original case ordered the evidence destroyed after Brown was convicted. "It is up the discretion of the officer, and he had no idea the case was being appealed," Koch said.

Stewart's family is still trying to make sense of losing her.

"She was a beautiful girl," said Eubanks, her cousin. "She just met the wrong person at the wrong time."

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