In at least three recent trials, defense attorneys have exploited glaring errors in crime scene diagrams drawn by police evidence technicians. In one case, defense attorneys accused police of deliberately omitting a row of parked cars from their diagram to cover up the fact that it would have blocked witnesses from seeing a 1999 execution-style shooting in East Baltimore. The flawed drawing helped win an acquittal for Dante Williams, 28, a convicted drug dealer previously acquitted in an attempted murder.
In the Stennett case, a wrecked police car held as evidence was inadvertently sold for scrap. Similarly, three men were acquitted in March 2000 in the murder of Shawn L. Suggs when a detective admitted to accidentally destroying bullet casings and bloody clothes in the case. Likewise, murder defendant William T. Flowers pleaded guilty in 1999 to reduced charges in a pool hall shooting after detectives admitted losing mug shots used to identify him as a suspect.
Despite repeated pleas from prosecutors, detectives have sometimes closed murder investigations on nothing more than the testimony of children - who are famously unreliable witnesses. As with the 10-year-old boy in the Quortez Jackson murder, two young sisters whom police relied upon to identify the killer of a Korean grocer in 1997 waffled on the witness stand and couldn't pick out the suspect in the courtroom.
Three months later, defendant Juwarren Bowers shot his aunt's fiance in the face.
Said Westveer of the FBI Academy: "It's a reflection on your whole agency if you don't have the [evidence]. I would be embarrassed to get into court on a case - and I'm speaking for myself - and testify that I don't recall.
"Once you say that, you're dead in the water. You have no credibility at all. If you forgot about that, you probably forgot about everything else. That's the perception the jury gets, even though it may not be true."
Homicide detectives are supposed to be in total command of the crime scene, Westveer said, acting as supervisors of all officers and technicians. It is also their duty to collect all evidence, reports, witness names and possible suspects to ensure that nothing is lost, overlooked or mishandled.
The persistent failure of detectives to do so results in disaster at the courthouse, said Ivonne Puyans, 56, a hotel housekeeper who served on the jury in the "Exxon" Davis trial.
"We were asking ourselves: `How could the detective be the one responsible for the case when he didn't seem to know the most basic things?'" she said. "When you're on a murder jury, you're being asked to take a young man and send him away to prison for the rest of his life. You're looking at him every day in the courtroom. ... You're having nightmares about the case, like, what if they got the wrong man?
"And the police are up there saying they parked a patrol car right on top of the evidence, they can't remember anything, they didn't take notes at the crime scene. They made it so hard to know what was the right thing to do."
And it was about to get harder.
Whatever was left of the prosecution's case against "Exxon" Davis all but disintegrated with the testimony of evidence technician Elizabeth Patti - yet another rookie officer, with two years' experience on the Baltimore force.
Glowering, defense attorney Bivens came straight to the point, grilling the technician about a major omission in her official report and crime scene diagram. Nowhere had she mentioned that Officer Sheppard drove over evidence from the shooting with her police SUV.
Holding up a photograph of the bullet for the jury's inspection, Bivens turned his back on Patti and asked: "That is underneath some type of motor vehicle, is that correct?"
"Yes, it is," Patti replied.
"Is that a police vehicle?"
"I believe so."
"You didn't have any occasion to look and see if the vehicle actually rolled over or destroyed any other evidence at the crime scene, did you?"
"On my arrival, that's exactly how the vehicle was," Patti said.
Bivens spun around and faced the witness: "Would you agree that the integrity of the crime scene had been compromised?"
Patti replied: "Because I wasn't there at the time, I can't really say what the circumstances were when the officers arrived."
"Right," Bivens retorted. "Well, it sure looks bad. ... "
And in his closing argument, he made it look even worse.
Evoking the catalog of errors, omissions and general forgetfulness on the part of police, Bivens singled out the bullet fragment as symbolic of a general breakdown in control by homicide detectives that began with their failure to respond to the crime scene for more than 40 minutes.
Police, he said, had turned the scene of Quortez Jackson's murder into "a circus."