Police had real killer's identity

Follow-up probe failed to free Roberts

witnesses from tip uncooperative

Follow-up probe had failed Roberts

April 11, 2002|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Three months after Henry Myron Roberts was imprisoned for a murder he didn't commit, an anonymous woman told Baltimore police detectives the identity of the real killer - as well as the names of people she said had important knowledge about the crime.

But a follow-up investigation in April 1992 by detectives went nowhere after the witnesses offered little or no cooperation, and Roberts remained in prison until he died there more than five years ago, maintaining his innocence to the end.

"It's something else that's unfortunate about this case when you look back on it," said Mark Wiedefeld, a detective in the city police homicide unit's cold-case squad. "The original investigators followed it up and submitted a report, which concluded that the tip didn't pan out and that it wasn't valid."

Roberts, a retired Bethlehem Steel worker from Northeast Baltimore, was 68 when he collapsed outside his cell at the Maryland House of Correction and died a day later, on Dec. 22, 1996. The story of his wrongful conviction and the string of coincidences that led to his imprisonment have been reviewed over and over by police and prosecutors, who say all evidence initially appeared to point to Roberts.

But appearances turned out to be completely deceiving. That came to public light this week when the true killer, Robert James Tomczewski, 29, a man with a long history of violence who used to live in Roberts' neighborhood, pleaded guilty to the crime in Baltimore Circuit Court.

It was Tomczewski's name that an unidentified woman gave to police three months after Roberts was sent to prison, according to Wiedefeld, who along with other detectives and Assistant State's Attorney William McCollum has been reconstructing the case.

The original detectives checked out the anonymous tip in 1992, Wiedefeld said.

"The caller said, `The guy that did this is Tomczewski and these are the individuals you need to speak to about it,'" Wiedefeld said.

But the "individuals" mentioned didn't corroborate the story for police, and the woman's tip was archived in police files for nearly a decade - a tantalizing hidden revelation that could have freed an innocent man from prison.

Prosecutors conceded yesterday that the system that failed Roberts isn't perfect. But they said the case underscores their commitment to bring out the truth, no matter how old it's become.

"Sometimes justice is delayed," Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia M. Jessamy said at a news conference about the case yesterday. "But we feel relieved that the case has been brought to justice and that justice was served. This shows that the system can come back and do what needs to be done."

Roberts, however, died with little faith in a system that from the beginning pigeon-holed him as the killer of his 21-year-old nephew, Henry Robert Harrison. A transcript of the original case file, obtained yesterday by The Sun, shows he steadfastly told the truth at his trial in January 1992 and reacted with horror at Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson's 50-year sentence.

"My God," he repeated six times after the sentence. "Fifty years for something I didn't do? My God ... Your honor, I have never fired a handgun. Never."

Johnson responded, "Sir, I'm convinced that the jury got it right."

The details in the case file, as well as police records, show Roberts to be a gruff, blue-collar retiree who was often the target of robbers in his Armistead Gardens neighborhood. In fact, Tomczewski had broken into Roberts' home in the 4900 block of Wright Ave. about a year before the murder and stolen Roberts' .22-caliber handgun from a safe - the weapon that he returned with to kill Harrison.

Roberts, who lived alone, told police that he had dozed off in his living room chair in the early morning of May 11, 1991. He said he awoke to see a man with a gun crouching in front of him with a bandana over his face.

Roberts said he was tired of being robbed, and put up a struggle with the intruder, according to trial documents. Harrison, whom Roberts was paying $50 to occasionally watch his home and provide added security, was asleep in a rear bedroom.

The intruder eventually shot Roberts in the chest, critically wounding him. Roberts said he passed out on the living room floor, and when he came to, his nephew didn't answer his calls, the documents said.

Harrison had been shot dead by the intruder, apparently after he awoke to the sounds of the struggle and came running to the aid of his uncle, police said. Roberts' dog also was killed in the attack.

In the days after the shooting, Roberts remained hospitalized with a serious gunshot wound and, apparently suffering from delirium from his wound and the effects of hospital medications, he provided inconsistent accounts of the attack to police. At one point he said the attacker was white; another time he said the man was black; and at other times he claimed the intruder appeared to be a woman. (Tomczewski is described by police as small-boned and light.)

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