Antonio Ellerbe had already been dead a year when a gunman executed Hope McLaurin with two shots to the head. Nevertheless, Baltimore homicide detectives charged Ellerbe with the murder and a robbery that netted $42,000 in cash and 85 pounds of marijuana.
Gerald Robinson was two years into a 12-year sentence at a state prison in Hagerstown when nine slugs from a semi-automatic handgun ended the life of a 30-year-old man on a West Baltimore basketball court. Homicide detectives charged the imprisoned Robinson with the murder.
Ellerbe and Robinson were among at least 34 people accused of murder whose charges were dropped during the past 19 months because police investigations had produced evidence that was fatally flawed.
According to some experts, the 34 cases show that police are bringing charges on thin evidence, sometimes basing murder charges on faulty and uncorroborated "eyewitness" identifications. The Ellerbe and Robinson cases, they say, are the most egregious examples of what happens when police, under pressure to bring killers to justice, act on erroneous information without the kind of thorough investigations that produce solid cases in the courtroom.
Some of the dropped cases involved claims of self-defense - later proved to be valid - and those arrested were later released. Two involved armed robbers who were slain by their victims. And some involved murders in which suspects were considered such a threat to public safety that police arrested them to get them off the street, though investigations were only in the preliminary stage.
In one such case, Lawrence Owens was charged with murder in order to protect public safety after witnesses said they had seen him with a woman hours before she was found dead. He was released when detectives failed to connect him directly to the murder.
In September, The Sun published a series of articles, "Justice Undone," that examined the 1,449 murders in Baltimore over a five-year period between 1997 and the end of 2001. The computer-assisted analysis found that more than 1,000 of those killings went unpunished or resulted in a light sentence because police made no arrest or prosecutors were unable to obtain a murder conviction, often as a result of faulty police work.
Those articles involved homicides in which - within weeks of a suspect's arrest on District Court charges - prosecutors presented evidence to grand jurors who then indicted the defendant because they believed he probably committed the murder. Once the indictment was handed up, the defendant's case moved to Circuit Court.
Unlike the cases in that series, these 34 cases were not taken to a grand jury because they didn't pass initial screening by prosecutors. Instead, they were dropped in District Court - but not before many defendants spent a month or more in jail.
Some of these cases looked strong at the beginning but collapsed when witnesses disappeared or changed their stories, or additional investigation raised doubts about the reliability of witnesses, or police found they had charged the wrong person.
But other cases were so flimsy that casual reading of the charging documents raises questions about why and how detectives obtained arrest warrants from judges or court commissioners.
Defending the system
Mayor Martin O'Malley and Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris say they are overcoming weaknesses that include repeated failures to produce solid homicide cases.
Norris attributes much of the blame for the poor record on murders in recent years on former Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's "rotation" policy, which moved many veteran detectives out of the homicide squad.
Police officials say they have moved to improve homicide investigations since Norris' appointment 2 1/2 years ago.
During the past few months, these steps have included hiring a former prosecutor to work with the squad; creating a Homicide Case Review Team of senior officers, detectives and prosecutors to assess the strengths and weakness of cases set for trial; and using videotapes of murder trials to identify weaknesses in police testimony that sink cases.
Norris declined to be interviewed for this article.
O'Malley defended the police, saying, "It's not a perfect system, but it's the best one humankind has come up with on the planet."
The Sun's review of cases dropped in District Court since May of last year suggests that problems persist.
In their defense, detectives say they often are left at murder scenes with few if any solid clues and potential witnesses who claim they didn't see anything. "Unfortunately, at a crime scene on a corner, you've got shell casings and some blood," said Detective Gordon Carew, a veteran of four years on the homicide squad. "It's not like on television."
But The Sun's review also found that detectives sometimes try to aid their investigations by charging people with first-degree murder - with the idea of pressuring suspects to cooperate or encouraging witnesses to talk.