Reformed addict testifies in man's murder retrial

November 14, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,

Four years ago, Joann Phillips was a drug-addicted prostitute who testified that she was too high on heroin to recall anything about a fatal stabbing on Harford Road.

A jury convicted Issac Smith without her help. While he appealed, Phillips got out of prostitution, out of Baltimore and off drugs.

After Smith's conviction was overturned on a technicality, Baltimore Detective John Riddick and prosecutor Paul O'Connor began searching for Phillips. They pressured her mother to give up her contact information, and once they reached her, Phillips, 27, grabbed the opportunity to redeem herself.

Yesterday, on the opening day of Smith's retrial, Phillips testified that from the front seat of her friend's car, she watched Smith stab Jamal Hill in the chest as Willis Booker held him still.

She was sure of it. The participants' faces were aglow in the lights from a Blockbuster store, she said, and the car was idling at a red light one lane away from the scuffle. She said Hill's body twisted and crumpled to the sidewalk when Booker let go of him and ran.

"I've been clean 21/2 years," she told the jury.

Retrials are often difficult to prosecute: Witnesses move, die or are killed; their memories fade; and evidence and paperwork are lost or destroyed. But with Phillips' change of heart, O'Connor was able to provide more evidence than before. She was the second eyewitness to testify yesterday.

Smith, 23, is being retried after the Court of Special Appeals ruled that Baltimore Circuit Judge John C. Themelis erred by failing to ask all potential jurors in 2004 whether they had any racial biases against the defendant. A Baltimore Circuit Court judge granted a retrial on the same grounds in another murder case last year.

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