Judge questions prosecutors' failure to call victims to testify

New trial ordered for man convicted of attempted murder

November 24, 2005|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

When Baltimore prosecutors put on trial the man they believed shot Maurice Johnson in the chest, there was one significant witness they chose not call to the stand: Maurice Johnson.

Johnson was uncooperative, the prosecutor told the Circuit Court judge. So Johnson never testified at the August trial of Darron Goods, which ended with a guilty verdict for first-degree attempted murder.

But this month, Circuit Judge Alfred Nance ordered a new trial for Goods, ruling that prosecutors were obligated to call Johnson as a witness, even if they weren't sure what he would say. More significantly, Nance questioned the now-common practice of city prosecutors' avoiding the use of shooting victims as witnesses in the trials of people accused of shooting them.

"The state has a responsibility not simply to seek and obtain a conviction," Nance said, "but to seek justice."

Nance and another city judge, Wanda K. Heard, have remarked in recent hearings that prosecutors, perhaps in an effort to enhance their cases, unfairly characterized two shooting victims as uncooperative. It is another example of the difficulties faced in gaining convictions in a city where residents distrust police and witnesses are intimidated.

Although shooting victims can be the best witnesses, prosecutors say, many other times they change their stories once they are on the witness stand, or they never show up for court.

Prosecutors say they must weigh these factors as they decide whether to move forward with a shooting case even with an absent or uncooperative victim - which is why some say they were taken aback by the recent in-court statements of Nance and Heard.

"We're not compelled to call anybody," said William F. Cecil, a supervisor in the firearms violence unit of the state's attorney's office. "Why would I call a witness to testify if he has nothing to offer?"

Victim and witness problems "contribute significantly" to the firearms unit's modest conviction rate, Cecil said. Bridget Duffy Shepherd, the Circuit Court chief of Baltimore's public defenders, attributed the rate to "bad police work and bad prosecution."

About 70 percent of the 160 nonfatal shooting and weapons violation trials in Baltimore last year ended in not-guilty verdicts or mistrials. Judges who decided these cases convicted two people and acquitted 27. Juries who heard them convicted 44 and acquitted 73.

Judge John M. Glynn, who oversees the court's criminal docket, said he sees victims and witnesses change their stories "all the time" during trials.

"It's chronic," Glynn said. "It reflects a general culture of a lack of faith in the system. Nobody has faith that anybody will protect them and that the system will do justice. The motive for participating is diminished."

Troublesome victims also prevent shooting cases from even reaching trial.

Prosecutors said they dropped shooting charges against Kenneth Davis and Darryl Davis because as their trials were set to begin in September, the victims were nowhere to be found. The same month, Sean Dyer, another man accused in a nonfatal shooting, avoided trial because prosecutors said the victim was uncooperative and the only other witness was not credible.

Goods was convicted in August of attempted first-degree murder and other charges in connection with the near-fatal shooting of Johnson in June last year in the 700 block of E. 26th St. He had been shot in the center of his chest.

Witnesses told police that Johnson had been arguing with the suspect - who wore gold fronts on his teeth and his hair in twists, and was known as "Moo-man" - though only one witness agreed to testify. When Johnson regained consciousness at the hospital, he told Officer Robert A. Cortina that he couldn't remember what had happened.

At Goods' trial, the officer testified that he never made another attempt to interview Johnson.

Goods, who had been on probation for a first-degree assault conviction, was arrested in July 2004 and brought to trial about a year later. Assistant State's Attorney Grant McDaniel did not call Johnson to testify, and neither did Jeffrey G. Kinstler, the public defender who represented Goods.

McDaniel said he could prove the case without Johnson, and Kinstler said he couldn't find him. (Johnson said he was in juvenile detention in Prince George's County at the time of the trial.)

Kinstler said in an interview that he didn't track down Johnson because "it is the state's obligation to bring in the victim anyway.

"One would think that the state's attorney, in all due diligence, would interview him and exercise some discretion based on what he had to say," Kinstler said. "I had no way to find him."

A Baltimore jury convicted Goods on Aug. 10, and he soon hired attorney Catherine Flynn to file a motion for a new trial. Flynn said in the motion that Johnson would be willing to testify that Goods was not the shooter and would describe another suspect.

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