Will justice for Smoot slip into gap of memory?

October 04, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

When Kandis Harlee, a former corrections officer at the Central Booking and Intake Center, testified last Friday against of three of her former co-workers accused of stomping Raymond K. Smoot to death, she admitted that she had talked to other witnesses.

Doesn't sound quite kosher, does it? Witnesses are routinely cautioned not to discuss their testimony with anyone, especially other witnesses.

Harlee said those witnesses - also former corrections officers at Central Booking - told her about their testimony. She revealed something else on the stand: Her family members sitting in court told her what other witnesses had said, too.

Harlee was a prosecution witness in the trial of Dameon C. Woods, Nathan D. Colbert and James L. Hatcher. The three are charged in the fatal beating of Raymond K. Smoot in May 2005. Smoot was an inmate at Central Booking.

Memory loss has been a common theme running through the trial, at least among those former corrections officers testifying for the state. Harlee was no different, but her revelation about talking to witnesses led to a defense motion not to let her testify further.

"I moved for a sequestration order in my opening statement," Andrew I. Alperstein, Hatcher's lawyer, said yesterday. Alperstein added that he had a suspicion that one or more witnesses may have been in contact with each other. Alperstein said the motion to dismiss Harlee as a witness came after she told Baltimore Circuit Judge John M. Glynn that she had, indeed, acknowledged talking to other corrections officers who testified and knew what they had said.

Alperstein said Glynn read the appropriate case law, which gives the judge "broad discretion in remedies" about situations like this. In this case, Glynn agreed to let Harlee continue with her testimony.

Glynn "specifically asked her if talking to her relatives and the other corrections officers influenced the testimony she was giving," said Joseph Sviatko, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office. "And she said no."

"The judge's main point is that when [a former corrections officer] called Harlee before her testimony, it probably helped [the defense]," Alperstein said.

Indeed, never have so many prosecution witnesses been so accommodating to so few defense attorneys. (There's one each for Woods, Colbert and Hatcher.) All gave initial statements to the warden and commissioner in which they claimed not to know who was in Smoot's cell at the time of his beating. In court, they've fingered the defendants. The lone exception was former corrections Officer Kene Jones, who's at least been consistent.

Jones said she didn't know who was in Smoot's cell when she was interviewed May 15, 2005, shortly after Smoot's death, and her memory hasn't improved.

Other former corrections officers claim their memories have cleared enough since May of last year to finger the defendants, but that their memories have failed them on other points. Alperstein said he's keeping a "Top 10" list of his favorite prosecution witness statements about forgetfulness. Peruse this sample:

"I have a foggy memory."

"I have post-shock amnesia."

"It's in my head, and I can't get it out."

"My mind is not clear."

What is this? Stop Snitching: The Corrections Officer Version?

How is Smoot supposed to get justice with witnesses like this? And at the end of the day, that's what this trial is about: justice for Raymond K. Smoot. But with this parade of characters testifying for the prosecution, jurors may figure they don't have reasonable doubts about the guilt of the defendants.

Those doubts might seem imperative.

Smoot's one shot at justice might just come not from a corrections officer but from another inmate. Alperstein said he overheard someone mention that the state's most reliable witness so far has been Thomas Price, Smoot's cellmate.

"He's maintained contact with the state the whole time," Alperstein said. "He's had a number of conversations with them. He's kept detailed notes of what happened. He's been very troubled by this."

Alperstein described Price as a man who's been in jail 19 times and is a drug addict. But, Alperstein said, Price also can quote the late Associate Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Alperstein said Price testified to seeing two corrections officers stomping Smoot.

One of those officers is not on trial.

Yesterday, Smoot's family members had to endure the part of the trial where a witness from the medical examiner's office showed the jury photos of their loved one's horribly beaten body. They came to court looking for justice. It seems the corrections officers who've testified so far are looking for the same thing.

Only it's spelled "just us."

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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