The wait seemed endless outside the Baltimore City Detention Center on a muggy August night last year. Inside, Courtney M. Noakes was inching his way through the formalities that come when a jury frees a man accused of murder.
It was past midnight when he finally walked out and into the embrace of carloads of loved ones.
He lifted his mama off her feet. He kissed his sister. He nestled his girl.
It was not the first time the women had celebrated his release.
Three times over as many summers, he stood accused of shooting men to death.
Steven Gabriel crumpled to the grass in 1998, knocked off his feet by five bullets as he walked to his night watchman's job.
Danny Gales collapsed into a red carpet stain in 1999 after defending his sister from hecklers who panned her raggedy black car.
Branch Brown slid face down at the foot of a gnarled oak in 2000, his bloody body washed clean by heavy rain.
Authorities marked the cases solved and closed, but no one has paid for the carnage.
Three times, officers from the Baltimore City Police Department gathered sufficient circumstantial evidence to indict Noakes. But each of those investigations was riddled with such basic mistakes that the charges didn't stick.
A courthouse veteran at age 22, Courtney Noakes is officially absolved of the violent deaths of Steven Gabriel, Danny Gales and Branch Brown. But he remains an embarrassment to Mayor Martin O'Malley, Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris and State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.
He is a 6-foot-7-inch, 300-pound cautionary tale of maladroit police work and anemic evidence - and of the weakness of a criminal justice system in which prosecutors take both to court anyway.
"There's guys that can play the system," explained Jessamy, the city's top prosecutor. "You got a bad guy like Courtney Noakes, you give it your best shot."
In the Gales case, officers lost an entire case file and misplaced crucial documents helpful to his defense. In the Brown case, they failed to check the alibis of possible suspects and to collect physical evidence at a crime scene. In the Gabriel case, they neglected protocols on handling witnesses. All three murder investigations hinged on eyewitnesses who described gunmen who were as much as a foot shorter than Noakes.
Jurors in the Brown and Gabriel cases deliberated only minutes before deciding there was too little evidence to convict Noakes of murder. In the Gales case, prosecutors dropped the charges when a judge barred their best witness from testifying.
Thus, three more killings ended without a prison sentence, adding to an avalanche of unsettled homicides in Baltimore and proving that justice here is little more than a coin toss.
An 18-month investigation by The Sun has found that almost 70 percent of the 1,449 slayings in Baltimore between January 1997 and December 2001 went unsolved, unpunished or resulted in a light sentence for the accused. Those accused of first degree murder were more likely to be exonerated or have their charges dismissed than they were to be convicted as charged.
But there is also a broader consequence when murder cases disintegrate under the weight of paltry evidence: the line that should stand between guilt and innocence blurs.
`Creampuff at heart'
Courtney Noakes is big enough to play pro football and so tall he ducks as he moves from room to room.
Among strangers, he is shy and polite; in a dark-paneled courtroom during one of his trials, he mouthed, "I love you," toward benches packed with relatives. When the family Pomeranian ran off, Noakes adopted a pregnant black cat and named her Mrs. Peepers. He awes his mother with his ability to cite a Bible verse from memory, lay his hand on the leather cover, and then drop open the book to the page with the verse.
Sharon McCormick says her son - "a creampuff at heart" - is neither saint nor killer. Court-appointed lawyers assert that Noakes has been both the victim of careless police work and the lucky recipient of judicial fair play. He refused to talk for this article - scared, he said, that police would retaliate against him.
His criminal record is punctuated by a single conviction: for selling cocaine two years ago. This year, he was arrested on charges of selling heroin. That case goes to trial Oct. 25.
More than merely a drug dealer, Noakes is regarded by authorities as one of Baltimore's most accurate enforcers, the finger behind the trigger in .38-caliber executions that continue to torment Danny Gales' angry brother, Steven Gabriel's grieving sister and Branch Brown's dispirited mother.
Sherry Mitchell, who drove 700 miles from Florida to Baltimore to watch the State of Maryland lay out its case against Noakes in the death of her brother Steven Gabriel, believes that his killer sat at the defense table. But much as she would have liked to see Noakes pay for the crime, she said even she would not have been able to convict him.