Second of two parts on the trial of a teenager in the shooting death of Deron Hope in 2007.
Baltimore jurors trying to decide whether William Key shot a 16-year-old amid a dispute over a girl or executed him as part of a gang initiation ceremony sat through five days of testimony and argued for three more behind closed doors before ending deadlocked.
It was only after Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory declared a mistrial that it emerged that the lone holdout for a verdict of voluntary manslaughter instead of first- or second-degree murder, as the 11 others wanted, was a defense attorney who works for the state public defender's office in the same courthouse in which the trial took place. She did not disclose her affiliation, even though an attorney from her office represented Key's co-defendant, who had earlier pleaded guilty and testified at Key's trial.
To the Baltimore's state's attorney's office, that constitutes a conflict of interest.
"It's hard to imagine a universe where you wouldn't think that an occupation of public defender is important for a juror to disclose in a murder trial," said Assistant State's Attorney Terry Shaffer, who prosecuted the case. "You've got to go out of your way not to disclose it."
Prosecutors have a hard time winning convictions in city murder cases, and to them this was one more obstacle in trying to put away a man they say shot a high school student for no other reason than to prove himself to the gang he wanted to join.The public defender, Nedra Wise, declined to comment. Her boss, Kirk Osborn, chief of misdemeanor jury trials, said he has no problem with one of his attorneys sitting on a jury and stressed that Wise truthfully answered every question posed to her.
The form that she filled out asked her occupation. Wise wrote "attorney." Prosecutors and defense lawyers get to question jurors and strike those they deem unfit or unfair, though in Maryland such challenges are limited. Neither Shaffer nor Key's lawyer, Dennis Laye, asked Wise where she worked.
"The question is whether you can be fair and impartial, not what your job is," Osborn said. "Lawyers are not excused from jury duty because they are lawyers." He said Wise did not know that a public defender represented the co-defendant, who was present in court only during the time he testified.
Shaffer posed the standard questions, including whether jurors were affiliated in any way with law enforcement or knew anyone in the courtroom such as the judge, the lawyers, police or other officials on the witness list.
Wise had just been reassigned to the courthouse from Central Booking and could honestly say that she did not know anyone in Courtroom 7 that day.
Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office, said Wise knew prosecutors and police from her work at the booking center and should have volunteered that information. Burns said Wise should have spoken up when asked if there was anything that might affect her ability to be impartial and render a fair verdict.
"At that point, she should've said she was a public defender," Burns said.
Countered Osborn: "I don't think that is true."
W. Stanwood Whiting, another juror, described Wise as a "firm holdout" for manslaughter, saying that "nothing would change her mind." He said he was willing to vote second-degree instead of first-degree murder to secure a conviction, adding that jurors had a difficult time sorting through the differing accounts of the shooting of Deron Hope in East Baltimore.
Earlier in deliberations, jurors had been split even more, with four pushing for first-degree murder, four for second-degree, three for manslaughter and one (Wise) for acquittal.
"I just wanted to get this guy put away," said Whiting, a lawyer who handles compensation law.
He, too, wrote "attorney" on the jury questionnaire and did not elaborate because, he said, "That's all they asked."
Jurors told Doory on Sept. 10 that they could not reach a unanimous verdict and the judge declared a mistrial.
Hours later, Key pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years. Laye said his client did not want to risk a possible sentence of life in prison in a retrial.
It was then that the prosecutor and defense attorney learned from a note sent from the jury room that Wise was a public defender.
Laye said he has no problem with what happened.
"Obviously, disclosure is in the eye of the beholder," he said.