Defendant silenced 2nd witness, say prosecutors

March 24, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

While on trial for ordering the killing of a witness in a separate murder case, Patrick Byers Jr. again used a contraband cell phone to silence a witness from jail, prosecutors alleged Monday, adding that this time he intimidated a man into recanting his testimony.

The disclosure, which came minutes after the jury was selected for Byers' trial in the killing of Carl Lackl in 2007, suggests a security breach despite extraordinary measures to ensure juror and witness safety. Spectators must show identification to view the trial, and the identity of the jurors is being kept secret.

"I don't quite understand how an individual at Supermax [the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center] has access to a cell phone," said U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett. "This is a very serious matter."

Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services officials acknowledge that contraband cell phones are a major problem in the state's prisons and jails. Last year, 947 phones were confiscated from prison cells, said spokesman Rick Binetti.

Byers, 23, is accused of using a cell phone while in jail on murder charges to order the shooting of Lackl, a key witness against him. He has pleaded not guilty to Lackl's murder and other charges. If convicted, he could receive the death penalty. His co-defendant, Frank K. Goodman, 23, also pleaded not guilty; he faces life in prison if convicted.

During opening statements Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney John F. Purcell Jr. said at least two conspirators have pleaded guilty and plan to testify, including Johnathan Cornish, a gang member paid to kill Lackl. Cornish, now 17, could be sentenced to 40 years in prison. Marcus Pearson, 28, who was hired to coordinate the killing, faces up to 35 years.

Pearson's ex-girlfriend, Tammy Graham, 25, is also expected to testify, along with a man who says Byers shot him in 2004 and the witness who recently changed his story after receiving calls from Byers in jail. Prosecutors said they learned of the cell phone Friday, and Byers' lawyers heard about it Sunday.

According to a court filing, Supermax staff got a tip that there were contraband phones in at least five prison cells. A Motorola phone was found hidden under Byers' mattress March 17.

The phone data are still being analyzed, but officials found that Byers had used it a dozen times this month to call a witness in the Lackl case who afterward, "totally changed his testimony," Bennett said.

The phone also was used to communicate with one of Byers' girlfriends and his father, as well as to make or receive thousands of calls to a correctional officer with whom Byers has a relationship, Purcell said.

Byers' attorneys questioned whether the search was legal, but Bennett said prisoners have no expectation of privacy. The judge allowed limited discussion of it during the prosecution's opening statement.

Some of the prosecutor's statements contradicted court records or previously reported accounts of the case.

Among the discrepancies is how Lackl came to be a witness against Byers: He drove to Baltimore to buy heroin for a friend and crack cocaine for himself, Purcell said. He was not in the city on a break from work, as had previously been reported.

Lackl told police in 2006 that he heard shots, then saw Byers throw a gun on a garage roof and run away. The shots were the murder of Larry Haynes, who allegedly killed Byers' cousins. Lackl was the only eye witness left in the murder case when he was killed July 2, eight days before the trial was to begin.

Prosecutors allege that Byers' ordered Lackl's murder from prison, involving eight others. Byers' and Goodman's attorneys are to offer their statements Tuesday.

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