Murder case tape accidentally erased

Police investigating

man told detectives about death of infant daughter

February 20, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The accidental erasure of some taped statements a father made to Baltimore homicide detectives concerning his role in the death of his 2-month-old daughter last week has prompted an internal investigation, officials said yesterday.

"It is regrettable that the tape's contents were lost," Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark said in a news release announcing the investigation. "However, we believe there is sufficient evidence to support the charges brought by detectives in this case."

The disclosure by Clark concerned the arrest and taped admissions of Kenneth L. Jenkins, 20, who was charged with first-degree murder last week in the death of his daughter, A'shia, whose body has not been found.

Jenkins gave police several versions of what happened to the girl. At first, he described his daughter's disappearance as a kidnapping, prompting the state's first use of its Amber Alert system. Later, he told police he had tossed the baby's lifeless body in the trash, which prompted a fruitless search for the infant in 900 tons of trash at a city incinerator Feb. 11.

Jenkins made his most damaging statement, police said, during a fourth and final interrogation, when he said he had "killed his daughter by accident," court records say.

In that interview, Jenkins said he had fallen asleep with his arm on A'shia's back. The statements were erased by an exhausted detective who mistakenly put the original audiotape into the wrong port of a dubbing device, police said.

In an effort to retrieve the erased material, police sent the tape to the FBI, but "no usable information was collected," officials said.

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city's state's attorney's office, said in a statement that "prosecutors will review the evidence and statements available from detectives and continue their investigation to develop the strongest possible case before presenting this case to the grand jury."

The erasure was first reported by WBAL-TV on Tuesday night.

Legal experts said that even before the erasure, the murder charge was going to be difficult to prove because police have not recovered the girl's body. The erasure will allow defense attorneys to attack police procedures but won't necessarily sink the prosecution's case, experts said.

"It might raise concerns, but I don't think it's fatal," said Jose F. Anderson, a professor of criminal law at the University of Baltimore. "It opens up the door to facts that a defense lawyer normally wouldn't have the opportunity to explore."

Anderson noted that detectives probably took copious notes and that two veteran investigators who were present for Jenkins' comments can testify about what he told them.

The professor also said Jenkins' inconsistent statements throughout the day - which police recorded - still could be used against him.

Jenkins first told police that the baby was abducted during a robbery while he was a passenger in an unlicensed cab, known as a hack, prompting a statewide search for the car.

Jenkins, who is being held without bail at the city jail, then changed his story.

Before telling detectives that he had accidentally killed his daughter, Jenkins said that he found A'shia dead and panicked. He said he had taken the girl outside, put her in a cardboard box and placed her in a trash container, police said. Jenkins said he covered the box with a pink blanket.

He led detectives to the garbage bin, but by the time investigators arrived, it had been emptied. Soon, detectives were futilely searching through the South Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems incinerator.

It is unclear whether detectives have gathered more evidence since Jenkins' arrest. Detectives declined to comment yesterday.

Joseph Murtha, a longtime criminal defense lawyer, said the case probably will hinge on whether jurors believe veteran detectives or a suspect whose story changed several times.

"It comes down to the credibility of the witnesses," Murtha said. "Are [jurors] supposed to believe officers after they say they lost [the tape]? It sort of raises eyebrows about how such important evidence can be misplaced or lost during such a critical stage of the investigation."

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