Jurors deciding murder case fall victim to crime

Thief took personal items locked up in jury room

March 20, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

While deliberating in a first-degree murder case yesterday, Baltimore jurors were escorted from the jury room to the courtroom to watch a videotape of trial testimony they had requested to see.

When they returned three hours later, they made a discovery as shocking as some courtroom evidence.

A thief had gotten into the locked jury room and stolen their money, cellular telephones and car keys.

"They were angry, hot, livid," said lawyer Warren A. Brown, who was in the courtroom on another matter. "Here they are, jurors in a murder case, and we can't even trust the court to protect their belongings from thieves. It's mind-boggling."

Police think it was an inside job.

"We believe it was an employee of the courthouse," said Detective Donny Moses, a Baltimore police spokesman.

The crime occurred about 2:30 p.m. when a thief used a set of keys to slip into Circuit Court Judge John N. Prevas' jury room on the fifth floor of Courthouse East, said Maj. Henry Martin, a spokesman for the Baltimore Sheriff's Department.

The department provides security for the courthouse, but Martin could not say who has access to the jury room keys.

"We have no idea," Martin said.

As a rule, juror deliberation rooms in the city's two downtown circuit courthouses are always locked but are not guarded. The sheriff's department stations its deputies at the doors to the courthouse and in the courtrooms.

About 11:30 a.m. yesterday, the jurors asked to watch a videotape of testimony by a witness in the trial, according to Michael Zepp, the clerk in the courtroom.

Prevas instructed them to walk across the hall into his courtroom to see the testimony, which lasted about three hours, Zepp said.

When the jurors returned to the room - which had been locked - they saw that their personal items were in disarray, and that some had been stolen.

Prevas called them back into his courtroom to find out what happened. The judge declined to comment on the incident.

Martin could not detail what was stolen from the jurors, but said he had gotten a description of a suspect as a man wearing a leather jacket with a Cleveland Browns logo.

Zepp said that someone in the courtroom had seen a man of that description going into the jurors' room about 2 p.m. using a set of keys.

The man mentioned that he had to change the water bottle in the room, according to Zepp.

Defense lawyer Maureen O'Leary made a motion to have the case declared a mistrial, but the motion was denied by Prevas.

"If the crime that occurred to the jurors was the same as the crime they were deliberating on that would be one thing," the judge said. "But this incident is too remote."

Jurors returned to their deliberations until Prevas sent them home for the weekend about 6:40 p.m.

"I think they had enough for one day," Zepp said.

The jurors are deciding the case of Kenneth Hiter, who is charged with first-degree murder and handgun charges in the April 2001 shooting death of Brian Reese in West Baltimore.

They began their deliberations about 3 p.m. Thursday.

A year ago, Hiter was tried on the charges, but a mistrial was declared because the jury could not unanimously decide on a verdict.

This was not the first time that Prevas' courthouse rooms have become a crime scene.

In 1993, convicted killer Dontay Carter escaped custody by leaping out of a bathroom window in Prevas' chambers, which were then across the street on the second floor of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse.

Carter was found by police a day after his escape in one of the largest manhunts in city history. It ended when police raided a Northeast Baltimore apartment and found Carter hiding behind a bed.

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