A rare twist in killing

Grand jury chooses not to indict after abused woman testifies

June 08, 2006|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

After hearing from the admitted shooter herself, a Baltimore County grand jury declined yesterday to indict a Randallstown woman who killed her estranged husband in April after, she said, he showed up unexpectedly at her home and threatened her with an ax handle.

The 23 jurors deliberated for less than a half-hour before deciding not to charge Karen L. Foxx, 35, with a crime in the death of her husband, Herman E. Bullock, 45.

In an extremely unusual turn of events, the grand jurors heard about 90 minutes of closed-door testimony from Foxx, and were given the chance to question her about the shooting and her husband's history of abusing her before making their decision.

"It's a very rare thing," said Margaret A. Mead, the criminal defense attorney who sought permission from prosecutors to allow Foxx to testify yesterday. "I always believed that this shooting was very justified - tragic, but justified - and I thought the best way to get that across was to get her in front of a grand jury."

Mead - who was not permitted in the windowless grand jury room on the first floor of the Baltimore County Circuit Courthouse in Towson while her client testified - declined to discuss what Foxx told her of prosecutors' and jurors' questions. She also said that Foxx was not feeling up to being interviewed yesterday.

"She's relieved, but it's still very sad," said Mead, who added that her client wept when informed of the grand jury's decision. "She did love this man, no matter how horrible he was to her. ... She feels responsible, but relieved, that she won't have to compound any of this with having to face a criminal proceeding."

Foxx, an office secretary, had sought court orders to keep her estranged husband away, filed criminal assault charges against him, changed her phone number and bought a gun to protect herself.

She dialed 911 at 4:30 p.m. April 1 to tell police that she had just shot Bullock in the townhouse the couple had shared until June 2005 - a two-story unit to which officers had been dispatched numerous times on domestic calls. Foxx told police she fired the gun after Bullock threatened her with an ax handle - a piece of wood about the length of a baseball bat without the metal ax head attached that she had been using in the tracks of a sliding glass door to secure it.

S. Ann Brobst, an assistant Baltimore County state's attorney who presented the case to the grand jury, said she is not permitted to discuss what evidence she offered jurors over several hours yesterday about the Bullock shooting. But she did say that her approach in this case differed from most that she handles.

In the majority of criminal cases presented to a grand jury, prosecutors review the facts and decide which charges they think are appropriate to be filed against a suspect. In those situations, prosecutors present their case - usually through witness statements and police reports - and seek an indictment on those charges.

In the Bullock shooting, Brobst said, "because there were genuine issues and potential defenses and because charging itself carries a punishment, we were not seeking an indictment. We were presenting the case for [the grand jury's] consideration."

The approach was similar to one Brobst and her colleagues used five years ago when they presented both sides of a case to grand jurors weighing whether to charge two brothers in the shooting of three unarmed intruders at their concrete plant in Glyndon.

Dominic "Tony" Geckle and Matthew Geckle armed themselves with shotguns to spend the night in their warehouse after break-ins the two previous evenings. One intruder was killed and two others were shot in the back when Tony Geckle fired at them in the dark warehouse in what he said was self-defense.

In April 2001, a Baltimore County grand jury reviewed written statements and heard about five hours of testimony from homicide detectives, one of the wounded burglary suspects and Tony Geckle before deciding not to indict the brothers.

Richard M. Karceski, who represented Tony Geckle, said yesterday that his "extremely unusual" decision five years ago to let his client testify before the grand jury was roundly second-guessed by lawyers.

"You take a chance and your heart's in your throat because everyone tells you - and everyone certainly told me - that it's a stupid thing to do," he said.

In addition to the fact that defense attorneys are not permitted in the room, having a defendant testify before a grand jury is also risky because prosecutors and jurors can ask anything they want, hearsay and speculative evidence are admissible and anything the suspect says can be used against him at trial if he is charged.

There's also a much lesser burden of proof. To hand up an indictment, only 13 grand jurors must be persuaded that a suspect is more likely than not responsible for a particular crime - a far lesser evidentiary standard than the unanimous, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt threshold used in a criminal trial.

"The burden is a lot less," Karceski said. "It's really a probable-cause hearing. It's much less than 50 percent - not even the flip of a coin - to get probable cause. That's all you need to indict someone."

Brobst, the prosecutor, said she believed grand jurors made the right decision with Foxx.

"I think there were genuine issues of self-defense," she said, "especially in light of the fact that there was a history of domestic violence against Ms. Foxx on the part of the victim."

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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