Handling a case right to ease juror doubts


January 01, 2009|By Peter Herman | Peter Herman,Peter.Herman@baltsun.com

It took more than an hour for Brandon Grimes' defense attorney to argue why the young man deserved a new trial for killing a Baltimore police officer - problems of cross-contamination in the department's DNA lab require more investigation and could, once fixed, point to a different gunman.

It took Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory a few minutes to deny the request. He later sentenced Grimes to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole, telling the emotionless and silent defendant that the residents of Baltimore "have every reason to fear you every day of your life."

In the second row of the courtroom, slouched in a wooden bench and blending into civilian life with the drabbest street attire, vacationing Marvin E. Sydnor smiled. A homicide detective on the case, he had listened to a litany of irksome questions from Grimes' attorney, who was trying to upend the case in part by calling police incompetent.

When it was all over, Sydnor, who has investigated death in this beleaguered city for as long as the 23 years Brandon Grimes has been alive, stepped into the hallway.

"Justice may be blind, but it's not stupid," he told me.

From the moment Grimes shot Detective Troy L. Chesley Sr. on Jan. 9, 2007, as the officer walked to the front door of his girlfriend's house in Northwest Baltimore, the case has been fraught with problems and entangled in scandal, sometimes by unfortunate chance. It gave Grimes' lawyer a platform to criticize and to question, and Grimes' family left to wonder whether justice is really blind after all.

Days after Grimes was arrested, we learned that he had been arrested 17 times and convicted six times, twice getting suspended sentences on nonviolent offenses.

We learned only after his arrest that two men had been carjacked before the shooting, that police had not taken a report and concluded the attack was unfounded, only to have to reverse themselves when one of the victims' driver's license and credit card were found in the car used to drive away from the shooting scene.

Then we learned that the Sig Sauer handgun used in the shooting had been in police possession before, seized in 2001 and returned to the owner when the case fell apart. In 2006, that same owner reported the gun stolen, but police never followed up.

And just before Grimes' trial started, police officials fired their crime lab director and launched an investigation into evidence being contaminated by DNA from lab technicians.

It's nearly impossible to avoid leaving behind trace DNA fragments, sometimes as few as 10 microscopic cells, when handling evidence. The real issue was that police had not obtained DNA samples from their laboratory workers and entered the results into the database to eliminate them as potential suspects during testing.

On the gun used to shoot Chesley, police found DNA belonging to Victor Meinhardt, who works with the mobile crime lab and had left his cellular signature on the gun's grip as he dusted for fingerprints. Tests for Grimes' DNA on the gun were inconclusive.

And so yesterday, in the middle of a routine motion, prosecutors were forced to once again call Rana Santos to the witness stand. The technical chief of the crime lab's DNA section reiterated what she had testified to at trial - that Meinhardt's DNA on the gun doesn't render the evidence useless; it's just one more set of DNA to consider, and had his DNA been taken and archived, that startling discovery at the onset of Grimes' trial wouldn't have been startling, or even an issue, at all.

She conceded that collecting samples from employees is good practice and should been done much earlier.

In 2001, jurors acquitted Eric D. Stennett of purposely aiming his car at a police cruiser blocking a road, killing Officer Kevon M. Gavin, even though there was no doubt Stennett was driving while trying to elude police after a shooting. Officers had pulled him from the driver's seat wearing a bulletproof vest; there was a box of ammunition and gun inside the crumpled car.

But the case fell apart for the jurors: An officer had grabbed the gun in the car with his bare hand, torn off the vest before taking a picture of Stennett wearing it, scooped up bullet casings before marking them, and in trying to put them back, drew 10 X's on the ground for the nine casings actually recovered. One report wasn't signed, another not dated, and another changed to contradict the original. Then, before the trial, the city demolished the cruiser for scrap.

The case against Brandon Grimes didn't come close to this level of incompetence. But it was circumstantial - prosecutors never placed the gun directly in Grimes' hands, or established a motive, or had a witness who saw Chesley get shot. But for Chesley getting off a round and planting a bullet in Grimes' leg, prosecutors conceded, an arrest might never have been made.

This is why seemingly easy-to-dismiss problems are important. They seed doubt, raise questions, give rise to conspiracy theories and provide defense lawyers ammunition to try and derail cases by playing off jurors' mistrust of police.

It worked years ago with Eric Stennett, with evidence that seemed incontrovertible. Police had less evidence against Brandon Grimes, and managed to get a conviction and keep their case intact through sentencing.

And Marvin Sydnor was luckily able to smile. That is, until the appeal.


Jean Marbella has the day off.

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