For child witness, a difficult burden

Jewel Williams faces the prospect of testifying again in the trial of a man accused of killing her mother

July 29, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

Jewel Williams was just 4 years old in 1998 when she watched a man kill her mother and her mother's friend in a Reservoir Hill apartment. On the witness stand three years later, clutching a doll and a Bible, the 7-year-old calmly described hugging her mother as the gunman fired.

She stayed in the apartment with the bodies for two days, caring for her 1-year-old brother and trying to treat her mother's wounds with toilet paper and a toy stethoscope. The man she testified against, Kenneth D. Perry, 43, was convicted and sentenced to life without parole plus 50 years.

Jewel, now 14, might have to testify all over again.

City prosecutors agreed to retry Perry after Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Phelps discovered that the attorney who originally prosecuted the case, Cassandra Costley, did not release to the defense transcripts of several interviews with Jewel. In them, the girl described her mother's assailant as wearing a mask.

Perry is expected to be rearraigned on murder charges today.

"I'm stronger now, and I'm older and mature enough to go through it," said Jewel, an honors student going into 10th grade at Pikesville High School. "No one wants to go through it again, but I have to do what I have to do."

Jewel's grandmother, Donna Webster, said the prosecutor's failure to follow trial rules in 2001 is disappointing.

Jewel "has endured all of this grief, this terrible experience and overcome a lot," Webster said. "She is strong-willed and strong-minded, a wonderful, sweet person. And it really saddens me to see her have to relive this after we've come so far. It's just really sad."

Like the first trial, the second one will hinge on Jewel's memory of the shooting. In an interview yesterday, Jewel said she remembers the crime but does not remember all of her testimony.

"Memories change over time, even short periods of time," said Janice Bledsoe, Perry's defense attorney, who was recently assigned to the case by the city public defender's office. "It's now been 10 years, and to think about all of the interviews and influences she has gone through, it's going to be interesting."

Phelps' office declined to comment for this article because the case is pending. But during a recent court hearing, Phelps described how she came upon the references to a masked assailant.

Perry had exhausted his appeals and initiated a last-ditch effort - asking for post-conviction relief - to get a new trial. His defense attorney, Robert Sheehan, filed a request for documents associated with the case. And as Phelps was going through the files, she told Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland that she came upon the references to a mask.

During the trial in 2001, Perry's attorney, William Monfried, never asked Jewel about a mask, and there is no record of Costley turning over the transcripts. Costley did not return two phone calls seeking comment.

"The bulk of the evidence at trial was the testimony of young Jewel, and this information could have had an impact on the case had the defense attorney been aware of it," Phelps said during the court hearing.

Costley, now a public defender, and Monfried, who is deceased, had problems in their professional lives around the time of Perry's trial.

Costley, a skilled courtroom orator who was well-liked by homicide detectives for her "single-minded zeal," was later demoted for trying to prevent the release of exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys in another murder case, according to a Sun investigative series Justice Undone.

In 2002, the Maryland Court of Appeals suspended Monfried indefinitely for taking money from two clients but failing to appear in court on their behalf. And during the trial, Perry formally complained to Circuit Judge Allen L. Schwait about Monfried's performance and then fired him before sentencing. Perry was sentenced without a lawyer.

Retrying the case after so many years - without the help of the original prosecutor - can be problematic. But Lynn McLain, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, said prosecutors will begin by asking Jewel to recount what she remembers, and that trial rules will permit Phelps to "refresh her memory" on the witness stand by showing her previous statements.

"This event is likely to have been seared into this child's memory," McLain said. "She's not necessarily going to remember all of the details."

At the time of the trial in 2001, Jewel's testimony was described as "unflinching," and it is used as a model to train prosecutors working with children who witness violent crimes.

Jewel's mother, LaShawn Jordan, 22, had gone to police accusing Perry, the father of her son, of stalking her and throwing bricks through windows of her Reservoir Hill apartment in the 700 block of Lennox St. She requested a protective order.

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