Inmate who died in '95 was innocent

Another man pleads guilty in 1991 killing, gets 10-year prison term

April 09, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

A man who died in prison after being convicted of a 1991 murder was innocent, Baltimore prosecutors said yesterday as another man pleaded guilty to the crime.

Henry Myron Roberts died of heart failure in prison in 1995, at age 65, protesting his conviction in the death of his nephew. Two years ago, police reopened the case after two witnesses told them that Robert James Tomczewski, 29, had admitted shooting Henry Robert Harrison, 21.

"They reopened the case, reinvestigated and realized that they had the wrong person," said Sonia Owens, law clerk for Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown.

Brown accepted Tomczewski's second-degree murder guilty plea and sentenced him to 25 years in prison, suspending all but 10 years.

The city state's attorney's office didn't realize Roberts was dead until prosecutors tried to free him from prison.

"As soon as the witnesses came forward and we realized the wrong man had been incarcerated, our prosecutors went to prison to get him out," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office. "That was when they were told he had passed away."

One of the witnesses was Tomczewski's cell mate. Tomczewski has been in jail on and off since 1993 for armed robbery and assault charges, court documents show.

The other witness was a man who said Tomczewski confessed to him the day of the killing, May 11, 1991.

"That person found out Henry died in jail, and to have a clear conscience, he decided to come forward," said Michael Lee Kaplan, Roberts' lawyer.

Tomczewski was about to be released when he was arrested on murder charges May 10, 2000, a day shy of nine years after the murder.

The night of the murder, Roberts' nephew was visiting Roberts' house in the 4900 block of Wright Ave. in East Baltimore.

Tomczewski went to the house about 4:30 a.m. with a .22-caliber handgun, according to Assistant State's Attorney Bill McCollum.

Nephew a bystander

Tomczewski and Roberts got into a fight over the television, and Tomczewski shot Roberts while they were in the living room. He also mistakenly fired a bullet at Harrison, who was standing in the nearby kitchen, McCollum said.

Harrison, who was 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 114 pounds, was shot in the arm, and the bullet also pierced his chest, killing him.

At Roberts' murder trial, the prosecution argued that Roberts was alone in the house with his nephew, and he had to be the killer.

The jury did not believe Roberts, Kaplan said, possibly because he was not the most sympathetic defendant.

"Henry was a difficult individual that had very little personality," Kaplan said. "He was very gruff."

Kaplan said this case makes him think of how many other innocent people are in jail.

`It makes you wonder'

"Obviously, the question you have in every criminal case is, `Is the ID correct?'" Kaplan said. "You hear all these people saying they're not guilty and they get convicted. It makes you wonder."

As for Roberts, Kaplan said he believes he has no family left to rejoice over his exoneration.

"Other than the state having the satisfaction of solving the case, I don't know if anyone gets any benefit out of it," Kaplan said. "Henry certainly doesn't."

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