Case crumbles in killing of Poly graduate

Charges to be dropped

witnesses' unreliability, lack of evidence blamed

Trial was to begin next week

Former star athlete was shot in May during $10 robbery

October 31, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

One of Baltimore's most troubling murder cases of the year has crumbled before trial, as witnesses' statements deteriorated in the case of 19-year-old Rio-Jarell Tatum, a Polytechnic Institute graduate and star athlete gunned down in a $10 holdup.

Today, prosecutors plan to drop charges against Nathaniel Boyd Fedd, 30, who was arrested 13 days after Tatum was killed and charged with first-degree murder.

Fedd's trial was scheduled to begin next week, but a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office said the case "simply is not viable."

"The evidence and leads in this case have been exhausted," said Margaret T. Burns. "We cannot in good conscience continue to hold this defendant in prison."

Fedd is unlikely to be released when prosecutors go before Circuit Judge John M. Glynn in a hearing today. He is charged in another armed robbery that occurred four days before Tatum was killed.

The Tatum killing has frustrated homicide detectives. Investigators had no forensic evidence from the scene and based their case on three witnesses, at least two of whom pointed directly to Fedd. But as detectives developed the case further, they determined that the witnesses' statements were unreliable.

For instance, police say they learned that a potential witness -- who helped detectives create a sketch of the supposed killer -- was nowhere near the scene and came forward only to seek reward money.

Tatum was shot in a holdup May 26 on North Paca Street in which his killers got $10. He had recently returned home from his freshman year at Pennsylvania State University, which he was attending on a scholarship.

Tatum and his close friend Ansley Turner were on their way to a downtown nightclub, the Tunnel, when they were approached by two men who demanded money. Tatum was shot, the bullet passing through his arm and piercing his heart. Turner was fired at but wasn't hit.

Police were left with little evidence and a public outraged about the killing of a promising young man. The killing sparked protests and vigils across the city decrying Baltimore's violence.

Within two weeks, detectives had found three witnesses. Based on several of their statements, Fedd was arrested and indicted. But as investigators interviewed those witnesses further, they determined that none of the three could help convict the defendant.

`Good-faith effort'

The first to identify Fedd was Turner, 19, who was with Tatum when he was shot. Shown a photo array by police, Turner picked out Fedd and wrote next to his picture, "Looks like the person who shot Rio and shot at me," according to court papers.

Investigators later decided that Turner's identification wasn't strong enough.

"Turner made a good-faith effort to make an identification," said Maj. Laurie Zuromski, head of the homicide division. "But it was not a 100 percent positive identification."

The second to identify Fedd was Sandra Williams, a homeless woman who said she had heard him confess. Investigators later learned that Williams might have been confused. She said in a follow-up interview that Fedd might have been speaking about another armed robbery he is suspected of committing days before the Tatum shooting.

Another supposed witness was Nathan Jefferson, who police think was not near the crime scene and was seeking a $2,000 reward offered by Metro Crime Stoppers. Police initially put enough trust in Jefferson's account that they teamed him with a sketch artist to help create a composite depiction of the killer.

Metro Crime Stoppers posted "Wanted" fliers around the city, showing the sketch and promising a reward.

"Some people find rewards very appealing, and that entices them to come forward," Zuromski said. "It became apparent that his motivation was not in the case's best interest. It was clear he was not there."

Police say they are still looking for Tatum's killer and his accomplice.

"It is still very much an open case," Zuromski said. "Based on the information we have now, we don't want to proceed with presenting it to a jury."

Numerous arrests

Fedd, who is being represented by Assistant Public Defender Arch McFadden, has been arrested numerous times since 1987 on charges from drug possession to robbery. He told police that he did not kill Tatum, saying he was alone at his Uncle Ronnie's house at the time of the shooting.

Fedd, whose last known address was on Myrtle Avenue, was sometimes homeless and sometimes stayed at his girlfriend's house, according to court records

Prosecutors told Tatum's family this week that they were dropping the case. They were upset, prosecutors said, and left town yesterday on a previously planned cruise.

Tatum grew up in a two-story house in the 1300 block of Windemere Ave., a few blocks from Memorial Stadium. He attended Roland Park Elementary and Middle schools, and at Poly he made the varsity baseball and soccer teams as a freshman and became captain of both.

Tatum graduated with a 3.97 grade-point average while taking a rigorous course load, his family said. Tatum, well-read and a writer of poetry, was elected Poly's prom king in his senior year.

Burns, the spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said the case is an example of the different standards of evidence needed for an arrest and a conviction.

"Police thought they had probable cause to arrest him," Burns said. "But at the end of the day, we need proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

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