Reversal on DNA saves case

May 11, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore prosecutors have salvaged the murder trial of a man accused of killing a 15-year-old girl by changing the mind of a judge who had days earlier thrown out crucial DNA evidence.

The murder trial of Terry Darrell Jones, 24, began yesterday afternoon. Circuit Judge Shirley M. Watts said prosecutor "missteps" led her last week to bar "any and all DNA evidence" - a ruling that prosecutors said would have forced them to drop the charges.

Yesterday, Watts narrowed her previous ruling: DNA evidence analyzed by the Baltimore crime lab is still prohibited, while DNA evidence analyzed by an independent lab can be presented.

That means jurors may hear about DNA consistent with Jones' found on the terry-cloth belt used to tie the ankles of Antiona Mills, whose naked body was found March 2004, wrapped in a sheet and dumped on a road in Northwest Baltimore.

"Prayer changes things," a relieved Annette Mills, Antiona's mother, said outside the courthouse after the ruling. Mills said she had been "upset like any other parent" to think that a man accused of killing her child might escape trial.

Police have not disclosed a motive for the killing but have said that Jones might have been Mills' boyfriend - something both Jones' defense attorney and Mills' family dispute.

Jones and another man, Eric Barksdale, are charged with first-degree murder. The trials are separate, so Barksdale has been unaffected by rulings in the Jones case.

Watts said yesterday in court that "a series of missteps by the city state's attorney's office" had led to her initial decision to throw out all DNA evidence against Jones on Friday.

The judge had said she was disturbed by Assistant State's Attorney Diana Smith's delays in giving Jones' defense attorney a routine document about city crime lab procedures and by the prosecutor's "changing of positions" about when she gave him items he had been requesting since November.

In evidence hearings last week, Smith argued that back in March she had given the defense attorney the city crime lab procedures - its protocol - in disk format.

But when the judge asked Smith to help her view the disk for herself, Smith said the document was not on there. Despite the pleas of Smith's supervisor, Assistant State's Attorney Sharon R. Holback, Watts precluded the DNA.

The Jones case returned to court yesterday, and prosecutors were to tell Watts whether they would appeal her decision.

Instead, a new argument for keeping the DNA emerged.

While Smith did not turn over the city crime lab protocol in a timely fashion, she did give defense attorney James Rhodes enough time to review the protocol for a private DNA lab that also did some testing in the Jones case.

Holback had told Watts on Friday that her ruling was "draconian" and that prosecutors simply would not be able to proceed to trial because of it.

Yesterday, Holback said in court that she had later realized that the private lab testing could possibly be saved.

"The patient is in bad shape," she told the judge. "But the patient is still alive."

Rhodes agreed that he had received the protocol for the private lab in March, which meant prosecutors had complied with the rules for turning over evidence - a process called discovery.

But Rhodes argued that even the private lab's results should be kept out of trial because Smith had delayed so long in giving him the city crime lab protocol.

Watts said the private lab posed "an interesting issue" - one she said she had never encountered.

In making her ruling, Watts called the state's presentation of its new argument "unprofessional and argumentative."

But Watts said the private lab results should be presented to the jury.

Mills' relatives, who packed the courtroom, audibly sighed with relief. Annette Mills said the prosecutors "did an excellent job, especially Diana Smith."

"I put my trust and faith in them," she said.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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