Lawyer seeks new hearing in 1972 murder conviction

April 10, 2009|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

Even in the pile of desperation that is Suzanne Drouet's mail - the inmates saying they were wrongfully convicted, the family members begging the Maryland Innocence Project for help - the letter from Jesse Barnes stood out.

At 17, he had been accused of killing his 15-year-old girlfriend. He had no prior record. There were no witnesses or physical or scientific evidence connecting him to the crime. There was only a confession.

Barnes - who had been classified as "mentally defective" on a school evaluation - signed the confession after 32 hours in police custody and seven hours of interrogation. He was convicted of first-degree murder in Baltimore Circuit Court in 1972. More than three decades later, Drouet received his letter.

"I read the transcript and I was horrified," said Drouet, a public defender with the Innocence Project. "I couldn't let it go. It was so tragic."

She was shocked that the case amounted to no more than Barnes' statement, which conflicts with what is known about the crime. Witnesses who could provide Barnes with an alibi were not put on the stand, and the jury never learned of his mental deficiencies. Drouet is asking a Baltimore judge to grant Barnes, 55, a hearing to present evidence she has uncovered, some of it detailed in a motion filed last month.

But proving Barnes' innocence will be tough because there is no DNA evidence. In most wrongful conviction cases that have been reopened in recent years, defenders were able to show that a convict's DNA did not match blood or bodily fluids from crime scenes. Now that many such cases have been brought to court, innocence advocates are turning to murkier cases likes Barnes'.

A spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney said the office would not comment on the specifics of the Barnes case. Margaret T. Burns said a prosecutor will be assigned and will respond with oral or written arguments. Last year, between April 28 and the end of December, the office received 85 motions to reopen homicide convictions.

"It's not uncommon for our office to receive a very detailed motion with sweeping allegations of ineffective counsel or legal issues, and the opportunity to defend our conviction is at the motions hearing," Burns said. She said almost all convictions are upheld.

Barnes has maintained his innocence since signing the confession statement, which was typed by police, on May 3, 1971. He said he did not read the statement because, even at age 17, he could barely read.

"I was trying to tell them no, and they said, 'You're lying,' " Barnes said in a recent phone interview from a state prison in Hagerstown, where he is serving a life sentence. "They said she was raped. They showed me pictures of her beating and that tore me up because I used to love her. I had a lot of feelings for her."

It is impossible to know exactly what happened in the early morning of May 1, 1971. The details were not brought up at the trial, leaving only 38-year-old police reports and contradictory statements.

Cynthia Vaughn had left home without her parents' knowledge and gone to a party in South Baltimore. She and a friend took a bus back to Cherry Hill and parted around 1 a.m., according to the friend's statement to police.

Barnes had been in East Baltimore and returned home around midnight, statements show. After his mother said that Vaughn's mother was looking for the girl, Barnes joined the search, according to statements of people who were with him. He and a family friend visited Vaughn's mother several times. Barnes and Vaughn's stepfather spent an hour looking for her, from 2:15 to 3:15 a.m.

The friend, who lived with Barnes' family, told police Barnes was home for the rest of the night. Police theorized Vaughn was killed shortly after she was last seen alive, 1 a.m., but her autopsy report gave no time of death.

Her body was found at 11:30 a.m. by two boys walking their dog in Cherry Hill Park. She had been stabbed in the face and neck. An artery was cut and she apparently bled to death.

Because the death was so gruesome, it is significant, Drouet says, that none of the people who were with Barnes that night ever told police that they saw blood on his clothing or that he changed clothes or acted oddly. Their accounts of Barnes' behavior and whereabouts were not brought up at trial - though that would have given him an alibi.

"At a certain point, it becomes really unlikely that you manage to commit this nasty, bloody murder and keep coming and going," Drouet said.

She filed a public information act request to obtain the homicide file from Baltimore police. She obtained Barnes' school records from the Department of Corrections, visited the crime scene and spoke with people who grew up with him during her investigation.

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