City jury acquits man identified by victim's wife, child as killer

Lack of physical evidence may have allowed doubt

July 15, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

A city jury acquitted DeAndre Whitehead of all charges yesterday, less than a week after an 11-year-old witness pointed him out in open court as the man who killed her father on a southwest Baltimore street.

The courtroom erupted into gasps and screams as the jury announced "not guilty" to the charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter and handgun violations.

An aunt of 11-year-old Tashiera Peterson, collapsed to the courtroom floor sobbing, "How am I going to tell that little girl?"

Whitehead, 19, was charged with killing Russell Peterson, 47, after arguing with Peterson's wife over a $10 drug sale in August last year. He was also charged with asking a cell mate in the city jail to kill the two eyewitnesses to the murder -- Peterson's wife, Patricia, and their daughter, Tashiera.

The jury deliberated about three hours before deciding that there was not enough evidence to convict Whitehead of killing Russell Peterson, 47, last summer.

"I don't think it was clear to everyone he was innocent," said Phil Cunneff, an alternate juror who listened to the entire case, but was released before deliberations. "But it was clear that by the standards we were given -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- he couldn't be found guilty."

After the verdict, jurors were escorted out a back door of the courthouse. When reached by telephone at home, several said they had no comment about the case.

Prosecutors alleged that Whitehead shot Peterson four times in the chest and back. The gun used in the crime was not recovered by police.

During the trial, the state relied on testimony from Peterson's wife and daughter as key evidence of Whitehead's guilt.

The prosecution also brought in the would-be hit-man, Byron James, who testified that Whitehead asked him to kill Patricia and Tashiera Peterson for payments of "a few hundred dollars."

Cunneff, the alternate juror, said he thought testimony was credible from Tashiera Peterson, who testified Friday on her 11th birthday.

But he didn't believe Patricia Peterson, saying it is in her nature to lie because she is a drug addict.

"Part of the pathology of drug addiction is lying," Cunneff said. "Sometimes they don't know when they're lying or not."

Tashiera testified Friday that she saw Whitehead shoot her father after her father stepped into an argument between her mother and Whitehead.

Patricia Peterson told the jury that Whitehead, a heroin dealer who sometimes sold crack cocaine, had sold her fake cocaine. When she confronted Whitehead about the drugs, the two began to argue, she said.

Russell Peterson came out of his house, in the 800 block of Carroll St., to find out what the noise was about and was shot four times, Patricia Peterson testified.

Tashiera and her mother separately picked out Whitehead's picture in a set of police photos.

A neighbor who lived near the Petersons, Sylvia Ashby, testified that she heard shots in the neighborhood then saw Whitehead running past her house the night of the killing.

"The state was lacking physical evidence that connected the defendant to the murder," Cunneff said. "I would have liked some kind of evidence, like finding the gun with fingerprints."

Defense lawyer Marci Tarrant Johnson could not be reached for comment yesterday. She said during the trial that Whitehead was shooting dice when the killing occurred, though she did not produce evidence to support the theory.

Prosecutor Denise Fili described herself as "taken aback" by the verdict as she walked out of the courtroom yesterday.

"The state put on the best case the court would allow," Fili said, alluding to the judge's decision to not allow certain evidence to be presented to the jury.

Before the trial started last week, presiding Judge Robert Heller, who is visiting from Anne Arundel County, did not allow jurors to know that police had a tape recording from jail of Whitehead asking for Patricia and Tashiera Peterson to be killed.

Heller also split the cases, meaning this trial involved only Peterson's murder. Whitehead will face a separate trial Nov. 9 on charges of hiring someone to kill Tashiera and her mother. Whitehead is being held in jail pending his next trial.

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