Gunshot residue motion is denied

Possible contamination of evidence not enough to overturn conviction

August 04, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge denied a motion yesterday for a new trial in the case of a city man who was convicted six years ago in a case that hinged on gunshot residue evidence that his attorneys say is unreliable.

Judge John N. Prevas ruled that there was "no need to roll the clock back" in the case of Tyrone Jones, who had asked the judge for a second time to set aside his conviction for conspiracy to commit murder in a June 24, 1998, shooting in East Baltimore.

The Jones case is among hundreds that a team of public defenders has been examining in an effort to find wrongful convictions from what they believe to be faulty gunshot residue evidence.

Public defender Michele Nethercott argued yesterday that Jones' hands could have become contaminated with tiny particles of gunshot residue when he was handcuffed by a police officer and placed in the back of a patrol car - an environment rich with gunshot residue, she argued.

Police have changed their policies in recent years and now immediately place bags over a suspect's hands to avoid the possibility of contamination.

Gunshot residue, powder-like particles that explode from a fired gun, can sometimes be found on the hands of suspects.

For years, gunshot residue has been used as key scientific evidence in the city's prosecution of weapons, shootings and murder cases.

Prosecutors have said they use the evidence sparingly and do not pursue cases where the sole evidence is gunshot residue.

The forensics division of the state public defender's office has been looking at two issues connected to how gunshot residue evidence has been used in Baltimore courts.

In cases such as Jones' they believe that one or two particles is not enough to draw the conclusion that a person "most probably" fired a weapon or was near a weapon when it was fired.

The presence of such a small amount of gunshot residue, they argue, could just as easily have come from police contamination.

February ruling

The public defenders' gunshot residue project has been buoyed by a February ruling by Circuit Judge John C. Themelis, in a separate case. Themelis said a city police lab analyst's conclusion about gunshot residue fell short of accepted scientific standards and excluded the evidence. The defendant later pleaded guilty to weapons violations.

About a dozen members of Jones' family - some wearing T-shirts bearing his image and the phrase "an innocent man, wrongly convicted" - attended the two-day hearing.

A quality assurance expert who specializes in laboratory conditions testified for the defense that "long-standing, systemic and severe contamination problems" at the police lab facilities had rendered the conclusion that Jones had "most probably" fired a weapon or been near one when it was fired "invalid and unsupportable."

Jones, who was a college student at the time of the shooting, was convicted by a jury of conspiracy to commit murder but acquitted of first-degree murder and handgun charges. Prevas sentenced him to life in prison.

Jury had information

Deputy State's Attorney Stephanie Royster, who prosecuted the case in 1999, argued yesterday that the defense attorney had adequately cross-examined police officers and lab analysts about the possibility of contamination during the original trial.

"The jury had the benefit of that information during their deliberations," Royster said. Prevas agreed.

Prevas, in his ruling, said that Jones' original attorney had "fairly convincingly" raised the issue of contamination.

"The way all the facts fit together, the jury did not accept that theory," Prevas said. "But they just as well could have."

Nethercott said she disagrees with that analysis because the original attorney only posed theoretical situations to the jury, but she now has proof that police facilities were contaminated.

She said she plans to appeal Prevas' latest ruling in the case. The judge denied a similar motion last year.

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