No one heeded inmate's protests

Prosecutors try to learn how innocent man was convicted of murder

Roberts died after 6 years in jail

April 10, 2002|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

No one listened to Henry Myron Roberts' protests of innocence when he was sent to prison for murder. Now, he's finally being heard -- five years after his death in a penitentiary.

A day after the real killer pleaded guilty to the crime in Baltimore Circuit Court, police and prosecutors said they were trying to piece together how Roberts, a retired Bethlehem Steel worker from Northeast Baltimore, was convicted of a killing he didn't commit. He spent the last six years of his life in prison cells.

All the while, he protested to lawyers, judges, prison officials and a newspaper columnist that the system had the wrong man. His arguments sounded like the typical cries of inmates that have been heard by investigators so many times before.

"One night an unknown person or persons came into my home at about 4 a.m. and my nephew was killed and I received the blame for the killing," Roberts wrote to The Sun in 1994, while he was imprisoned in Hagerstown. "The police claim that the gun used in the killing was my gun."

The details of a plea agreement Monday finally cleared Roberts' name and prompted a review by prosecutors of what remains of a long-closed case file. Key to the fresh look at the case is a state witness who came forward after nearly a decade, saying he was wracked by guilt and wanted to identify the killer.

"It was something that had been eating away at this man for years," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office. "He finally decided to come forward and tell what he knew to detectives."

Assistant State's Attorney William McCollum began piecing together details from the case file, much of which had been lost or archived over the past decade, in an attempt to re-create the information originally available to investigators. McCollum did not prosecute the original case.

Prosecutors say that in the early morning hours of May 11, 1991, the witness, who was 17 at the time, had gone to Roberts' house in the 4900 block of Wright Ave. in Armistead Gardens with Robert James Tomczewski, then 18. Tomczewski broke into the house with the intention of robbing Roberts, and moments later he shot both Roberts and his nephew, Henry Robert Harrison, 21.

Harrison died from his wounds, but Roberts, critically wounded in the chest, survived. In the days after the shooting, police questioned Roberts about the crime and became suspicious of inconsistencies in his story, law enforcement sources said. For instance, his description of the attacker changed, and he seemed at times to be uncooperative with investigators, the sources said.

But the key piece of evidence used against Roberts was the .22-caliber handgun used in the crime. The murder weapon was found two months later by two boys who said they were hunting frogs near a creek of the Herring Run waterway.

The gun had once belonged to Roberts, and when questioned about it by detectives, he told them -- truthfully -- that it had been stolen from his house during a burglary, along with a gold watch and cash, sources said. It had been Tomczewski who had stolen the gun, though neither Roberts nor police knew that at the time.

Detectives didn't believe Roberts. They suspected he shot himself to throw investigators off the trail after killing his nephew, who neighbors said did not always get along with Roberts, sources said.

"The biggest problem was that it was his gun," said Michael Lee Kaplan, who represented Roberts at the trial. "I argued that by telling the jury, here was a man who had been critically wounded, and it would have been very difficult for him to go someplace and hide the gun. But a police officer testified it could be easily done."

Kaplan said that at one point, he and a prosecutor worked out a plea agreement that would have given Roberts a suspended sentence for manslaughter. But he said Kenneth L. Johnson, the Circuit Court judge presiding over the case, rejected the deal.

The case went to trial, and the jury believed the police account of the case. Roberts, who had no criminal record, was sentenced to 50 years in prison at age 63.

A gruff man who struck his lawyer as "an old sailor," Roberts passed his years in prison by occasionally writing plain, straightforward letters to anyone who he thought would be willing to hear a plea for justice. Court papers describe him as a model prisoner who never had to be disciplined.

Although he had only a ninth-grade education, Roberts expressed himself well in writing and had come up with some novel approaches to try to get his conviction overturned.

In a letter dated Aug. 28, 1994, Roberts wrote to Sun environmental columnist Tom Horton, noting that he had recently read a Horton article about frogs and that the columnist might be able to help him.

"During my trial two boys stated that they found the murder weapon while looking for frogs in Herring Run creek," Roberts wrote. "This creek runs right behind the home that I lived in and I never remember hearing a frog in that area. I had walked my dog along that creek for all those years and never saw any living thing in the creek."

The creek near Roberts' home was heavily polluted. He asked Horton to provide him the addresses for various environmentalists that he could contact for his post-conviction appeal, apparently thinking that he might be able to impeach testimony from the boys who found the murder weapon.

"I am trying to get a new trial and if I can prove anything about the frogs in that creek it may be of some help to me," Roberts wrote.

Three years later, in May 1997, Roberts died at age 68, court papers said.

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