Sands' third murder trial begins without a problem

Mistrials were declared in previous prosecutions


March 03, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Lawyers rehashed their opening statements, and the first nine witnesses testified yesterday as Howard prosecutors attempted for the third time to try a Columbia man on a charge of first-degree murder in the January 2002 shooting death of a 23-year-old computer student.

Two previous trials - in October 2002 and August last year - ended in mistrials after a witness, Gaston Davis, gave barred or surprise testimony.

The mistrials were declared just as prosecutors were beginning to build their case against Tavon Donya Sands, 22, who is accused of shooting DeShawn Anthony Wallace during a botched robbery in Columbia's Oakland Mills village.

But yesterday, prosecutors finally made it past Davis' testimony, eliciting a smile and a deep exhale from Wallace's mother.

Davis' testimony had proven to be a problematic necessity for prosecutors in their efforts to prove that Sands was the person who fired the fatal shot Jan. 25, 2002, hitting Wallace in the head.

Davis' testimony that he saw three men get out of a white, four-door Cadillac Fleetwood and walk away just moments before Wallace was killed in an adjacent apartment complex is expected to be the foundation for testimony that links Sands to the car, according to prosecutor Kim Oldham's opening statement.

But Davis surprised prosecutors and defense attorneys during the first trial when, after he identified Sands as one of the three men he saw that night, he said a police officer had shown him a photographic lineup that included Sands' picture. Howard Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. declared a mistrial for what lawyers called "trial by ambush."

And despite orders not to identify Sands from the witness stand during the second trial, Davis referred to him by name, sparking a second mistrial.

Defense attorney Joseph Murtha said the first two trial attempts made him wonder whether the third trial would "come screeching to another halt." After Davis finished his testimony yesterday, Murtha was still circumspect.

"We'll just continue trying the case," he said.

This week's trial comes more than two years after Wallace, during a visit with his brother and friends in the 5800 block of Stevens Forest Road, was shot when he walked away rather than comply with a robber's demand to get on the ground.

Prosecutors charged three cousins in the homicide - Sands, Jonas L. Askins, 20, and Robert L. Burgess, 20.

Askins pleaded guilty to first-degree murder last year and was sentenced to life in prison with all but 40 years suspended, plus five years for a handgun conviction.

Prosecutors dropped all charges against Burgess in November 2002, saying they could not prove their case against him.

It was Sands who caught the attention of law enforcement officials. Police noted that the Columbia man had repeatedly been charged with crimes after his release from prison on an assault conviction in January 2001, but had always managed to make bond in the months leading up to Wallace's death.

Sands, of the 5400 block of Cedar Lane, is serving 39 years in prison for convictions relating to those offenses.

Yesterday, Oldham called Sands a "cold-blooded killer" and noted that the robbery netted spare change and cigarettes.

Testimony is scheduled to resume today.

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