Lapse causes judge to toss DNA evidence

May 10, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

It appeared prosecutors had all they needed for a conviction - DNA consistent with the defendant's genetic profile turned up on the terry-cloth belt used to bind the ankles of the 15-year-old girl found beaten and strangled. But a Baltimore circuit judge became so fed up with the prosecutor's failure to give the defense attorney a routine document about city crime lab procedures that she threw out the DNA evidence in the first-degree murder case.

Terry Darrell Jones, 24, could be released from jail today, and murder charges against him could be dismissed.

A supervisor in the homicide unit pleaded with the judge to reconsider. "This is simply and finally a DNA case," Assistant State's Attorney Sharon R. Holback said during a hearing Friday. "Your ruling in effect will cause the end of this murder prosecution."

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said the state will try to "go forward" with the case today, but she would not describe how.

FOR THE RECORD - Because an incorrect photograph was supplied to The Sun by the Baltimore Police Department, a picture of the wrong Terry D. Jones appeared on Page 1A yesterday. At left is a photo of Terry Darrell Jones, 24, who is accused of strangling 15-year-old Antiona Mills.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"We work very hard to get it right most of the time," Burns said yesterday. "However, in this case, we fell short. We should have done better."

Antiona Mills' battered body was found March 8, 2004, naked and wrapped in a sheet in the middle of Talbot Road in Northwest Baltimore. Mills, who called herself "Antania," was a ninth-grader at Southwestern High School, her relatives told The Sun in March 2004.

Police charged Jones last May in her death, saying they had found what they believed to be his DNA on the belt around her ankles. Jones, police said, was Mills' boyfriend, and the two may have met up the day before her body was found. Phone records show they exchanged phone calls that day.

Eric Barksdale, 25, also has been charged with murder. Jones' defense lawyer said that Barksdale's DNA also was found on the belt, and that the two men were together about the time Mills was killed. Barksdale's trial, scheduled for June, will not be affected by the DNA ruling in Jones' case, prosecutors said, because the men are being tried separately.

Prosecutors and police have not disclosed a motive for Mills' killing.

Jones' trial was to begin last week, but Circuit Judge Shirley M. Watts held evidence hearings Thursday and Friday. Jones' attorney, James Rhodes, had filed a motion to prohibit DNA evidence, arguing that he had not received the city crime lab's protocol until days earlier.

The protocol is a detailed plan of how crime technicians collect and analyze the microscopic genetic evidence found in skin cells, sweat, blood and other body fluids. Each police department and laboratory has its own protocol.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys frequently spar over what materials should be shared with one another through what's called the discovery process.

But a 2003 ruling by the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, makes it clear that the lab protocol is non-negotiable: Prosecutors must provide it to defense attorneys at least 30 days before trial.

Rhodes told Watts he had been asking for that document since November. He said the first time he received the city lab's protocol - or at least part of it - was April 27, two business days before the trial was scheduled to begin.

"I've never come so close to the trial date and still not had this kind of discovery," Rhodes said. "It's hard for me to say whether this was just a mistake or if it was done on purpose."

Rhodes said he received the protocol of a private lab in the city that also performed some DNA analysis in the Jones case more than 30 days before the trial date.

Assistant State's Attorney Diana Smith argued at last week's hearings that she had met her legal obligation to Rhodes by giving him a computer disk in mid-March that included the city lab's general DNA protocol and DNA information specific to Jones' case.

Smith repeatedly assured Watts that the protocol was on the computer disk. Rhodes disagreed.

The judge told the lawyers she'd tried for days to see for herself what was on the disk but that she did not have the correct software to access its contents. Friday afternoon, she asked Smith to send a crime lab technician with the software on a laptop to assist her.

Smith said she'd make the arrangements, but when court reconvened later that day, the prosecutor had news that stunned the judge:

The protocol was not on the disk.

Watts called Smith's news a "significant development," and said she was ready to make her ruling about the DNA evidence.

Just then, Smith's supervisor, Holback, rushed into the courtroom.

The two prosecutors spoke briefly, and Smith then asked the judge whether she could make a new argument based on what she'd just learned from Holback.

Watts was visibly annoyed.

"I have been, since yesterday afternoon, trying to access a disk that doesn't even contain the documents that you claimed were on it, and you have now conceded that you did not disclose the Baltimore City Police DNA lab protocols," the judge said to Smith, her voice rising slightly.

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