"After looking at the totality of the circumstances and after reviewing the case with my supervisor, the strategic decision was to try all three defendants together," said Lifson. "That was the strongest case we had."
Deputy State's Attorney Haven Kodeck would not let Lifson discuss the plea negotiations. Nor would they discuss the detailed analysis that led to the decision to drop the confession.
Moore says the lack of a confession sank his case.
"The biggest part that I think crushed my case was the fact we got a confession from one of the defendants and you can't use it," said Moore, who is now a Police Department firearms instructor.
In general, Circuit Judge John N. Prevas says, juries usually don't believe co-defendants.
"They just tend to not like snitches and not believe snitches," said the veteran of 30 years as a prosecutor and judge.
Indeed, eight months after Itchy Man's acquittal, prosecutor Lifson lost another case when two murder defendants made plea deals and testified against a co-defendant, the alleged gunman. The jury took less than an hour to acquit him.
The other suspects
Losing the sole eyewitness to the Middleton murder wasn't the only prosecution problem. What initially appeared to be quick police work eventually handed defense lawyers powerful ammunition to argue that police got the wrong guys.
Within minutes of the crime, police had briefly detained and questioned three other men before concluding that they were not involved.
When shots rang out that pre-Christmas night, two police officers, Sgt. Michael McDonald and Officer Mark Polk, were in the neighborhood and they quickly drove toward the gunfire.
Gary Jones, too, heard the shots from the upstairs of a house nearly a half-block away. He rushed to the fogged-over front window, wiped it clean and looked down the block.
He saw his friend Middleton sprawled on the sidewalk under the glow of a streetlight. Four guys were standing over him.
"The only way I know it was him by his boots," Jones told police.
He charged downstairs and ran to the corner. The four guys were gone. The policemen had just pulled up.
Jones told them, "The dudes done ran around the corner and should be going down ... Arlington." McDonald drove off to search while Polk got descriptions from Jones and broadcast them.
Three blocks away, McDonald spotted two men "exactly fitting the description." They were held while police took Jones to eyeball them.
"The witness positively identified the two men as the black males that shot the victim," McDonald said in a report that became a key piece of defense evidence.
The men were Francis Bernard Smith and LaGant Byrd. They were handcuffed and driven separately to the homicide office at police headquarters. Jones, too, was taken to homicide. There, crime lab technicians photographed all three and swabbed their hands for gunshot residue, the microscopic particles that firearms emit when fired.
Then, detectives interviewed them. Byrd and Smith were treated as suspects. They waived their right to counsel and agreed to talk. They said they had been nearby and fled when shots were fired.
For his part, Jones acknowledged that he had not seen the shooting from the house up the street, just the aftermath.
"I made the determination that he did not identify the shooter," Detective Moore later testified. And, he said he had been told on the night of the murder that "Itchy Man may be involved."
In the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Eve, detectives freed Jones, Byrd and Smith.
Prosecutors did not tell defense lawyers of their role in the investigation until November 1999, nearly 11 months after the crime.
At that point, the gunshot residue swabs taken from them on the night of the murder had not been analyzed. When the analysis was completed, it showed that two of the three men -- Jones and one of those he had identified as Middleton's assailants -- had the telltale residue on their hands soon after the murder.
By this time, Jones was in Georgia, refusing to return to Baltimore. The other two could not be found.
Defense lawyers were outraged.
They claimed that the belated disclosure prevented them from interviewing the three or calling them as witnesses. They asked Judge Marcella Holland to dismiss the murder indictments on the grounds that prosecutors had failed to provide promptly, as required, information that might point toward the innocence of defendants.
After Lifson argued that the disclosure was timely, if belated, Holland turned them down.
Nevertheless, the defense was now armed for a relentless attack on police credibility when the case went before the jury.
The first volleys were fired minutes after the murder trial opened on April 20, 2000.