Court sees murder suspect's confession

Defense says client said what detective wanted, seeks suppression of recordings in Woodlawn slaying

May 28, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

Confronted by police about the trail of blood through the crawl space between his townhouse and the home of his dead neighbor, Vaughn L. Garris initially told detectives that a maintenance man must have stabbed the woman to death, according to a video of the interview shown yesterday in court.

But after long stretches of silence during the first of four interviews with police, Garris haltingly told investigators that he stabbed his neighbor with the same knife he used to force open a ceiling panel that led to the attic space shared by the row of townhouses in Woodlawn.

"She jumped out at me," Garris said during the interview played yesterday during a pretrial hearing in Baltimore County Circuit Court. "I don't know what ... happened."

Defense attorneys have asked the judge to prevent prosecutors from playing the DVDs of the statements for the jury that will hear the capital murder case against their client. Although the lawyers declined to answer questions about their specific justification for the request, Garris himself offered a glimpse of a possible argument during the first interview.

After confessing to the killing, breaking down in tears and spending 20 minutes on the phone, Garris suggested to homicide detective David Jacoby that he admitted to the stabbing only to be allowed to make the phone calls that the police officer said he could make if he told the truth about what happened to his neighbor.

"I told you what you wanted to hear," Garris said to the detective.

Garris, 38, is charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery, robbery and burglary in the March 2007 death of 31-year-old Chontae Waters, who lived next door to the defendant on Heatherton Court. Prosecutors are seeking a death sentence in the case.

Waters' roommate found her body in a second-floor bedroom of the townhouse where the women had lived for only about two weeks. With the panel to the attic open in Waters' ceiling and a trail of blood leading to the freshly screwed-shut ceiling panel next door, suspicion immediately turned to Garris.

"There's blood, and it's probably going to be her blood, going back into your house," Jacoby told Garris during the first interview March 20, 2007, a day after the stabbing.

The detective testified that he spoke to Garris four times, including twice when the defendant called him from the county jail where he is being held while awaiting trial. Garris told police in the taped interview that he has struggled with a heroin addiction. He appeared to nod when asked whether he broke into his neighbor's home to look for money or something that he could pawn to get money for "a fix." He also told investigators that he sneaked into the home through the crawl space at the suggestion of a friend, who said he should steal someone else's stuff as "justice" for a break-in that occurred at his own townhouse.

During the second interview, which was also played yesterday in court, Garris told detectives on March 21, 2007, that he stashed the knife and the clothes he wore that day into a black backpack, which he dumped into a trash can at a subway station.

In the third interview six days later, Jacoby told Judge Robert E. Cahill Jr., Garris made a sketch for police of the folding pocket knife that he used in the stabbing. Officers never found the backpack.

On several occasions during questioning, Garris and the detective smoked cigarettes together, flicking their ashes into a Pepsi can.

Initially, when Garris told police that a maintenance man must have come into his home with a key and then broken into the neighbor's house through the crawl space, Jacoby told the defendant that he would allow him to call his wife and his mother and to have a cigarette after Garris told the truth about the killing.

"Was it an accident? That's all I need to know," the detective told Garris after he again asked to use the phone. "It's a yes-or-no question." After a long pause, Garris responded, "Yes." Later, Garris suggested that he might have told the detective what he thought the officer wanted to hear rather than the truth. "I didn't make you any promises, pal," Jacoby told him. "Let's not go down that road."

The detective later told him that making a phone call is a privilege, rather than a constitutional right, offered to suspects during interrogation.

The hearing is scheduled to continue through tomorrow. .

jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

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