Murder charges dropped in Carroll beating case

Prosecutors point to `a cloud of uncertainty'

October 05, 2004|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The Carroll County state's attorney dropped murder charges yesterday against a young mentally disabled man, pointing to recently obtained evidence that cast suspicion on several other people in the fatal beating of a man at a Westminster rooming house in December.

Godfrey G. Miller III was released from the Carroll County Detention Center yesterday after prosecutor Jerry F. Barnes entered a motion saying that he does not intend to pursue first-degree murder and related charges against Miller. Barnes said evidence to which the defense was legally entitled was not given to his office, or the defense, until about three weeks ago by Westminster police. Barnes said police obtained it almost nine months ago.

Maryland State Police will conduct a new criminal investigation into the death of Richard Paul Atkins Jr., who was found bludgeoned to death in his room in the 100 block of E. Main St. on Dec. 29, Barnes said.

Miller was arrested 12 days later after he confessed. At a hearing last month, Westminster police testified that they did not find any physical evidence. A murder weapon was never found, authorities said.

Significant evidence previously unknown to prosecutors has "diminished our confidence in the existing case," Barnes told Circuit Judge J. Barry Hughes, reading from a prepared statement. Barnes said the evidence should have been made known to prosecutors before Miller was indicted in January.

Barnes said "a cloud of uncertainty" made further prosecution unjust. "We must get it right, and justice must be our ultimate goal," he said.

Miller's court-appointed attorney, Clarke F. Ahlers of Columbia, praised Barnes and other officials yesterday for their actions, but he criticized unnamed Westminster police investigators in court.

After the proceedings, Ahlers said that there was "a conspiracy to cover up ... to violate the civil rights of Godfrey Miler, and they got caught at it. ... Thank God that we had honest prosecutors."

Hughes apologized to Miller, who was taken back to the detention center for release.

Barnes said after the hearing that his office became aware of new evidence in the past three weeks, and he made the decision late last week to drop the charges.

The review of the case started when a Frederick man went to the state police with an unsigned letter found tucked in a library book that the man checked out from the Mount Airy branch over the summer. In the letter, the writer gives an account of the killing, Barnes said.

The letter led to the discovery of reports of alleged comments by a female drug abuser at the detention center about the case. The reports, prepared in January by Sheriff's Department correctional officers, were based on conversations among other female inmates that implicated the woman and her then-boyfriend in the killing. Both lived in the rooming house at the time, authorities said.

Another possible suspect, who also lived in the rooming house and had a criminal record, disappeared after the killing, according to defense lawyers.

Westminster Police Chief Jeff Spaulding said he will conduct an investigation of city officers after the criminal case has been resolved. He declined to elaborate.

Technically, Miller could be charged again without violating his rights against double jeopardy because no jury had been sworn in, Barnes said.

Ahlers said he plans a civil action if he does not get help from Westminster officials to obtain housing and job training for Miller. Ahlers said his client, who turned 20 last month, has an IQ between 65 and 69, or "borderline retarded."

Beyond that, Ahlers said he would like to see an experienced counselor with the mentally disabled train police officers in questioning such suspects.

Miller has no criminal record or history of substance abuse, Ahlers said. He added that Miller had had only good experiences with the police -- making him eager to please them, which led to the confession.

There was no evidence against Miller other than his statement, which did not match the evidence, Ahlers said.

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