Man pleads guilty to 2 weapons charges

Plea deal comes days after judge threw out gunshot residue evidence

February 25, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Days after a Baltimore circuit judge threw out gunshot residue evidence in his case, an Ednor Gardens man pleaded guilty yesterday to two weapons violations charges.

During Michael Washington's daylong trial, prosecutors said he had shot himself in October 2003 and then claimed that someone else had fired a gun at him. Washington was charged with three weapons violations, including illegally possessing a gun because he had been barred from having a gun after a previous conviction.

With a jury deadlocked for a day and a half on all but one of the charges - jurors did not disclose which one - Washington, 25, of the 4000 block of Wilsby Ave., accepted a state plea arrangement yesterday afternoon on the illegal gun possession charge and a charge of illegally transporting a handgun.

William F. Cecil, a supervisor in the city state's attorney's office firearms violence unit that prosecuted Washington, said jurors remarked as they left the courtroom yesterday that a gunshot residue test could have cleared any doubts in their minds. Jurors heard no testimony about the judge's decision to exclude the analysis.

Defense attorneys have said that Circuit Judge John C. Themelis' decision Tuesday to throw out the evidence could have a sweeping impact on city shooting cases. Public defenders, who are reviewing cases involving gunshot residue evidence, said as many as 500 cases dating to 1996 have positive results that they believe need to be re-examined.

But prosecutors, while saying that they would more carefully review cases with gunshot evidence similar to that in Washington's case, said they already use the controversial evidence sparingly.

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney, said a committee of prosecutors was formed in May to review how gunshot residue results are used in court. Prosecutors said they never pursue cases with only gunshot residue evidence - a fact that they said was underlined by the outcome yesterday in the Washington case.

Washington's plea included a sentence of eight years, with a suspension of all the prison time except what he has already served while awaiting trial. He also was sentenced to five years of supervised probation.

When Washington was arrested, Baltimore police swabbed his hands for gunshot residue, and criminalist Joseph Harant later performed an analysis. Harant identified one particle as uniquely gunshot residue even though, Themelis determined, the criminalist's conclusion was out of step with the broader scientific community.

Themelis threw out the evidence and said he was disturbed that Harant - the city's only gunshot residue analyst - seemed to contradict himself by giving testimony in a hearing Feb. 18 that differed from what he had said in front of another judge several months ago. Harant said during the earlier hearing that he considered only three-element particles to be uniquely gunshot residue.

Washington's case involved a particle with only two fused elements. Harant testified in Themelis' court Feb. 18 that, although it doesn't happen often, he sometimes deems a two-element particle to be unique gunshot residue.

Other cases where two-element particles were identified as gunshot residue will be affected by Themelis' decision, prosecutors and defense attorneys said. Burns said only two or three such cases exist. Patrick Kent, chief of the state public defender's forensics division that is reviewing gunshot residue, said he has identified many past two-element cases.

Additionally, future shooting cases could be affected, defense attorneys and law professors said, because Harant's credibility as a scientist and expert witness could be questioned each time prosecutors try to call him in a case.

Burns said yesterday, reiterating statements by police and prosecutors, that Harant is credible and does his work well.

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