DNA's secrets set a man free

Exonerated: Bernard Webster was convicted for a rape he didn't commit. But in 1982, science couldn't uncover the truth DNA evidence held. Twenty years later, it could.

March 09, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The three slides looked like any others: translucent, three inches long, an inch wide. Tiny blue labels showed they came from 1982, from case No. 3324 - numbers that, for decades, seemed as unexceptional as the file name typed below them.

But those little slides, buried deep in Greater Baltimore Medical Center's pathology lab, held a secret of profound importance.

On July 6, 1982, an intruder jumped out of a Towson woman's bedroom closet. He shoved her onto her bed, threatened to kill her if she didn't stop trembling and raped her.

She was a white, 47-year-old English teacher. He was a young, black man.

That afternoon, after the rapist fled and the woman's husband came home, medics carried her, sobbing, from her first-floor Lambeth House apartment on Towsontown Boulevard to GBMC. A nurse collected evidence for the police and made sample slides for the hospital.

Those slides held the microscopic genetic evidence that could one day prove the attacker's identity. But in 1982, that information was scientifically impossible to extract.

So, two weeks later, when the woman forced herself to look at five black men standing shoulder to shoulder in the police station, when she pointed to the one she recognized as her attacker, the slides could not reveal whether she had picked correctly.

And by the time genetic technology could have shown the truth, the slides had been long forgotten.

They kept their secret for 20 years.

The victim testifies

In March 1983, 20-year-old Bernard Webster went to trial, charged with the Towson rape.

The victim seemed afraid as she walked to the witness stand, giving a wide berth to the 5-foot 8-inch, 142-pound man in jeans at the defense table.

She sobbed as she testified, describing how, after they first came face to face, her attacker spun her around and wrapped a house dress around her head so tightly that she could hardly breathe. She said he pressed something hard into her back and told her it was a gun.

"Do you see that person in court today?" asked Assistant State's Attorney Robert W. Lazzaro.

"Yes, I do," she replied. And then she pointed at Webster. "That's he."

She was only the first witness. But Webster, an East Baltimore man with big eyes and a street attitude, had been in enough courtrooms to know he was finished.

He knew it wouldn't matter that his city friends said they'd never seen him in khaki pants, which the rapist left under the woman's bed. Wouldn't matter that William Wade Nathaniel Dorsey said he and Webster were playing basketball near Harford Road that day, or that Dorsey's girlfriend remembered the men visiting after their game.

Webster felt the antagonism in the Baltimore County courtroom toward him and his friends, all young blacks from the city.

"Now, you apparently are a good friend of Mr. Webster, is that correct?" Lazzaro asked Dorsey in his cross-examination.

"Yes, sir."

"You naturally want to help him out, he being in this jam, right?"

"I mean yes, you could say that, but what I'm saying is the truth."

"Oh, it is?"

The prosecutors had damning testimony. Police said they had found a key in the woman's bedroom that, if jiggled enough, fit the lock in Webster's Mount Royal Terrace apartment. A police chemist said the attacker's blood matched Webster's type A. And two Lambeth House employees said they saw Webster at the complex.

"Members of the jury, it's not often that you get a case where you have three solid identifications like this," Lazzaro said in his closing argument. "And the question here is, how many do you need? How many people have to come in and say this is the man?"

Webster had decided not to testify, not to let prosecutors ask him about his youth on Baltimore's east side, about the juvenile auto theft charge or the heroin slinging or the simple assault charge that was the reason he was in jail when officers came to arrest him for rape.

He didn't want to talk about why he played basketball most days and stopped attending school by the 10th grade, why he had been arrested months earlier for taking a pocketbook from Towson's Loyola Federal Building - the crime that made county detectives suspect him in the rape.

He didn't even want to be there. They could have had the trial just as well without him, he figured. Years later, he would realize he had been in shock.

As the jury filed into the courtroom, Webster already knew the verdict.

The foreman stood. "We find the defendant guilty," he announced.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge John E. Raine Jr. declared Webster's home situation "broken," his personality "anti-social" and rejected his lawyer's request for a psychiatric evaluation.

"I don't think a psychiatrist is going to tell me anything about this boy that's helpful," Raine said.

He sentenced Webster to 30 years.

Following protocol, the judge asked Webster whether he wanted to speak. He answered no but then kept talking.

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