After 20 years, DNA frees man in Md. murder

But neither side is satisfied that plea deal serves justice

August 23, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

Robert C. Griffin spent two decades in prison for a Baltimore murder he says he did not commit. Yesterday, the 71-year-old proclaimed his innocence again, but then he took a plea deal and left the courthouse a free man.

Griffin was convicted in May 1986 of first-degree murder in the stabbing and strangling death of his girlfriend, Annie Cruse, 20, whose body was found in Druid Hill Park. That conviction, which carried a life sentence, was overturned last year because recent testing showed DNA found in Cruse's body was not Griffin's.

This was the first time in Baltimore that a murder conviction was turned around by new DNA testing, though it is not a black-and-white example of a wrongful conviction. Griffin's plea now punctuates his case with a question mark.

His new trial was to begin yesterday. But when the prosecutor asked to postpone the trial, Griffin entered an Alford plea, meaning he did not admit guilt but acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him.

As part of the plea, to second-degree murder, Griffin was sentenced to time served. The plea will be entered as "guilty" in court records. Griffin has been out on bail since January and lives with family members in Baltimore.

"Quite frankly, he wanted a trial," said Suzanne Drouet, Griffin's attorney. "He wanted vindication from a jury. But this has been extremely stressful for him and for his family, and we agreed it was in his best interest to put it behind him."

Drouet said Griffin chose to enter the plea because he was unwilling to wait for another trial date. It would have been the second postponement in the case since the new trial was ordered in November.

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said it is "inconceivable" that a man who waited 20 years for a new trial would not wait a little longer.

"If he truly believes he is innocent, he should have gone to trial to see that justice is served," Burns said.

Burns said the plea came days after the prosecutor told Griffin's attorney that a former cellmate would testify. During conversations with the cellmate, Burns said, Griffin confessed to killing Cruse.

Like prosecutors, the victims' relatives are confident Griffin was the right man. "They just let a murderer back out on the streets," said Iva Cruse, Annie's mother.

But Drouet said Griffin had evidence to show he was not guilty and she said there was "a very good chance" a jury would have acquitted him.

"He spent 20 years in prison for something he did not do," Drouet said. "Another tragedy is that this case is never going to be solved. Somewhere out there is the man who murdered Annie Cruse, but we'll never know who it is."

After Cruse's body was discovered on the afternoon of Sept. 25, 1985, behind the Reptile House in Druid Hill Park, the state medical examiner performed an autopsy. The examiner collected sperm from inside the body and saved a slide of it.

DNA testing was not available at the time of the trial. When it was tested in recent years, a California serological research lab showed conclusively that the sperm was not Griffin's.

Drouet said there was not enough sperm to compare it to DNA databases in the hopes of finding out whose it was.

Prosecutors have argued that the sperm is irrelevant.

In a court hearing last fall about whether to hold a new trial, Assistant State's Attorney Matthew Fraling said prosecutors never claimed the last person to have sex with Cruse was the one who killed her. Cruse's body showed no signs of rape, according to the medical examiner, and Griffin was not charged with a sex crime.

Drouet said the prosecutor in the original murder trial strongly implied to jurors that the last person to have sex with Cruse was the killer. They mentioned the sperm at the trial and said Griffin was Cruse's only sex partner.

In granting Griffin a new trial, Circuit Judge Gale E. Rasin called the DNA evidence "so compelling" and "material to the case."

Yesterday's Alford plea was taken by Circuit Judge Althea M. Handy.

Afterward, Griffin hugged some of his 15 family members who had come to court to support him, Drouet said.

"Without DNA, he would still be sitting in prison for life," Drouet said. "There was no way to show what he had always been saying without DNA testing."

Drouet is part of the state's Innocence Project, a group of public defenders that tackles what it believes to be wrongful convictions.

In 1993, Baltimore County's Kirk Bloodsworth became the first death-row inmate in the United States to be exonerated by DNA. Bloodsworth had been convicted for the 1984 killing of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton. After DNA testing exonerated Bloodsworth, another man pleaded guilty to the crime.

Bloodsworth was pardoned by the governor and received $300,000 from the state Board of Public Works. By taking a plea deal yesterday, Griffin forfeits any such chance at restitution.

The Innocence Project is pursuing two other city cases in which it believes DNA could exonerate their clients.

In December, Judge Kaye A. Allison ordered testing of DNA from a 1988 murder-rape conviction of two men. James Thomson and James Owens were found guilty in the murder of Colleen Williar, 24, in her O'Donnell Heights rowhouse.

Drouet said she doesn't believe sperm collected from the victim's body belongs to either of the men. She said public defenders are awaiting the results of those tests.

Donte Gregg was convicted in 2003 of first-degree murder and handgun charges. He claims that another man in his vehicle jumped out, fired the fatal shots and got back inside, forcing him to drive away.

Police found the murder weapon and swabbed skin cells from the trigger, but neither the prosecutor nor Gregg's trial attorney asked for DNA testing.

His appellate attorney, Michele Nethercott, who heads the Innocence Project, said she wants that testing to be done.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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