Remarks about fatal beating spark outrage

Wife of victim says prosecutors' details are wrong

June 14, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

The wife of a man who spent months in a coma after being hit during a robbery and later died is outraged at a spokeswoman for Baltimore prosecutors who questioned whether her husband's injuries were the result of a "vicious beating" and said that he looked like a "sleeping baby" at the hospital.

The statements from Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, appeared in a May 28 article in Exhibit A, an online publication about legal issues written by Melody Simmons, a freelance journalist and former Sun reporter.

In December, Zachary Sowers' attacker, Trayvon Ramos, received a 40-year prison sentence to be followed by five years' probation after pleading guilty to robbery and attempted first-degree murder. If Ramos, now 17, violates his probation, he could go to prison for life.

Three co-defendants also accepted plea deals on robbery charges in cases involving Sowers and a victim in another robbery, receiving eight-year sentences with the potential for 30 years if they violate probation.

Afterward, Sowers' widow, Anna, told reporters she was "totally disgusted" with the sentences - comments that created animosity between her and some prosecutors. Since then, Burns has attempted to defend the plea deals and prosecutors by explaining the difficulties with trying the case, including a partial fingerprint and a lack of cooperating defendants.

Simmons quoted Burns as saying, "The truth of the matter is, Zach's injury was on one side of his face, and he looked like a sleeping baby when he arrived" at the hospital. "The injuries were not consistent with this horrible pummeling. ... We know he was kicked, he fell and hit his head, he fell between two cars. He probably injured something in the fall or he had a pre-existing condition. There was no evidence of the vicious beating, no evidence of stomping."

Yesterday, Burns said that the article was "a misrepresentation of the facts as I conveyed them to the reporter" but said she would not discuss specifics. She declined to comment when asked whether Simmons misquoted her or took her out of context. Simmons said she stands by her reporting.

"We will not discuss it publicly," Burns said. "It needs to be resolved privately between me and Mrs. Sowers. It was not my intent or the office's intent to cause her further grief and harm in these tragic circumstances."

Jessamy did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Jerry Tarud, an attorney for one of the co-defendants, said that prosecutors did the best they could with what they had.

"Prosecutors did everything they could to put pressure on me and my guy to flip, but no one would flip," he said. "This left the state with circumstantial evidence."

In an interview yesterday, Anna Sowers, 28, said Burns' comments caused her to "boil inside."

"He did not look like a sleeping baby," she said. "I saw him in the hospital. He looked like a used pinata. His eyes were the size of golf balls. His head the size of a basketball. He was wrapped in bandages soaked in blood. I didn't even recognize him. I walked by his room."

In the online article, Burns also questioned Sowers' decision to decline an autopsy, saying that what Sowers says is "not 100 [percent] accurate" and that the lack of an autopsy means that disagreements will never be settled.

"Zach was declining; family had flown in from Ohio and California and everyone was aware he wasn't going to be around much longer," Sowers said of her decision. "We didn't want his body to go through any more trauma. We all knew he was in the hospital because of the brain injuries he sustained that night, and we knew back in December that if he passed away, there would be no murder charges."

Prosecutors have said that Ramos attacked Sowers while Eric Price, 17, watched in the 300 block of S. Robinson St., near Sowers' Patterson Park home in June 2007. Arthur Jeter, 18, and Wilburt Martin, 20, sat in a car out of sight of the robbery.

Zach Sowers, 28, remained in a coma for 10 months, during which he underwent two surgeries and was at four different hospitals. He died in March at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

Simmons, a freelancer for public radio and The New York Times, said she called Burns for a story about Anna Sowers, who wants state law changed so that prosecutors can seek murder convictions when victims are in a vegetative state and not expected to recover.

"Burns said during the interview, 'Now I can say some things I hadn't been able to say before,'" Simmons said. "She went into stuff about the autopsy and basically some disagreements about the evidence."

Simmons described some of Burns' remarks as "incendiary."

"She said some stuff that I've never seen before. I asked her about that, and she said, 'We have never been able to talk about this case as frankly as we can now.' "

Simmons said Burns e-mailed her about the article Thursday night, saying the story had generated hate mail to Jessamy's office.

"I wrote her back explaining that was not my intention," Simmons said.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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