New trial granted in '98 city killing

Police report casts doubt on witness

man got life

January 30, 2010|By Tricia Bishop |

A 30-year-old Baltimore man convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced a decade ago to life in prison was granted a new trial Friday because potentially exculpatory evidence - a single-page police report - was not revealed during the original proceeding.

Tyrone Jones was a college student home on summer break when he was charged with killing a 15-year-old boy in 1998. A jury acquitted him of the killing but found him guilty of conspiring to participate, based on a witness identification and the inexact science of analyzing gunshot residue, a particle of which was found on his hands.

But that witness, who eventually picked Jones out of a photo array, had told police minutes after the shooting that he hadn't seen any suspects, according to the recently discovered police report. That makes his photo identification - and Jones' conviction - shaky.

"The withheld impeachment information on this witness would have had a devastating impact on the State's case had it been made available for use by Petitioner's trial counsel," defense attorney Michele Nethercott wrote in court papers requesting a new trial. She represents Jones as part of the state's Innocence Project, which seeks to overturn wrongful convictions.

Assistant State's Attorney Don Giblin, head of the homicide unit, joined in the defense request during a hearing Friday. "I believe it's the right thing to do," he said in court. Giblin had also offered Jones a plea deal of time served on the conspiracy charge, but it was rejected.

Jones wants exoneration.

"He didn't do it," his mother, clutching a tissue and hugging anyone standing still, said in an interview outside the courtroom. "This is victory day."

In 1998, Jones was a 21-year-old East Baltimore kid who had learned his lessons the hard way. He had been arrested on charges of loitering and drug possession, but was never convicted. He also had a prior charge in New Jersey involving the transport of cocaine, but said it was a wake-up call that set him straight.

He played football at Dunbar High School and used that, his former coach said Friday, to help get into a Texas college, where he spent the academic year with his longtime girlfriend.

He had been home visiting in the summer of 1998 and was preparing to return to school by late June. His clothes were laid out on his bed for packing on June 24, his mother said, a sweltering night when he went out to play basketball and never came back.

He had been standing with a group on a street corner, wearing a gray cutoff shirt and colorful shorts similar to those in the description of a man who had just shot Tyree Wright as the 15-year-old boy sat outside his mother's home. Officers looking for the killer thought they heard someone identify Jones and arrested him.

The presence of gunshot residue was later detected on his hands, though defense attorneys have raised questions about the reliability of such tests. Other chemicals can be mistaken for residue, and it spreads easily from one place to another, such as from police handcuffs to a suspect's hand.

The evidence presented at Jones' trial in 1999 convinced the jury, but it made the judge uncomfortable.

"This is an extremely vexatious case," Circuit Judge John Prevas said at the time. "This is only one of about four in my career that I have said to the defendant, 'You know a jury of your peers has convicted you, and I have to sentence you as though you did it. But if you can come forward with any evidence that demonstrates that you did not do it, I will be more than happy to set you free.' "

Several attempts to free Jones on residue reliability arguments since then have failed, as has a motion questioning DNA evidence. The discovery of the police report made the difference.

Judge Gale E. Rasin agreed to the new trial on the conspiracy charge Friday and granted Jones a $50,000 bail, which his family hopes to meet as early as Saturday.

"It will be difficult, I think, for the state" to put a new case together, the judge said.

Giblin said his office plans to reinterview witnesses and review the evidence to determine whether prosecutors should go forward.

"It's a great day," Nethercott said. "This has been a long struggle."

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