A murder case, an unpaid bill

Neither is resolved

May 15, 2010|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

You would think that someone known as the father of blood spatter analysis wouldn't have much trouble getting paid for his services — who, after all, would want to find out how someone like that goes about collecting bad debts?

But the so-called father of this frightful field of forensics says he's been stiffed by a Montgomery County prosecutor who hired him to review the evidence in a murder case, but who refused to pay him after an analysis showed that the defendant was innocent.

"I went over to the right side," Herbert MacDonell says. "I testified for the defense."

But Deputy State's Attorney John Maloney, the prosecutor, said MacDonell hasn't been paid because of a discrepancy in his invoice (which, for his part, the scientist said he wasn't told about). "He sends e-mails. He called the governor," Maloney said. "Just give us a normal bill like everone else does."

Their dispute is a small sideshow in a case that is otherwise downright wrenching: An Army Ranger was found dead of a gunshot wound to his head in a Gaithersburg apartment in September 2006, and his roommate, a Ranger with whom he served two tours in Afghanistan, was charged with the murder.

The case, which came to trial two years ago, highlighted what some say is inadequate support of returning vets — the trial judge even called from the bench for more assistance to prevent more "lost souls" surviving the war but not their homecoming.

Gary Smith claimed he found Michael McQueen dead of a self-inflicted wound and, in an attempt to protect his buddy's reputation, took the gun and tossed it into a lake in Rockville. But despite MacDonell's testimony on his behalf, Smith was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder and sentenced to 35 years in prison. The case is under appeal.

Even by phone, it's clear why MacDonell, who is 81 and lives in Corning, N.Y., is frequently invited to the witness stand by both prosecutors and defense attorneys. The author of one of the classic manuals in his field, "Flight Characteristics and Stain Patterns of Human Blood," he brings a ranconteur's skill to such gruesome matters as discharge distances and intracranial trajectories.

He's has analyzed everything from blood on O.J. Simpson's sock to a bullet hole on the pajama top of the "Scarsdale Diet" doctor whose lover, a private school headmistress named Jean Harris, was convicted of killing him. His current fee is generally $500 an hour — he charged Montgomery County $5,500 — although he says he'll do cases pro bono or at reduced fees if they particularly interest him.

While it's a job, sometimes cases will trouble him — such as Smith's conviction for McQueen's death.

"The kid was telling the truth," he said. "I don't usually care much — I do my work and leave. But this is a travesty."

He said as much to Maloney, in an e-mail he sent last year: "I was sorry that you did not drop this case as, personally, I feel you prosecuted and convicted an innocent man based upon the evidence I reviewed for you. That is for your conscience."

Maloney, though, says the jury convicted Smith because of the range of evidence — Smith changing his story several times, disposing of the gun and "a thousand other things."

Both sides presented forensic witnesses, who gave conflicting interpretations of the evidence, but Maloney said that his conversations with jurors after the verdict indicated that "they went with their common sense rather than expert testimony."

The experts differed over the blood spatters and other evidence, Maloney said, and the field of forensics "is not an exact science."

"It's like looking at a cloud," he said, "what do you see?"

The case is currently before the Court of Special Appeals, and Maloney expects a decision shortly. However it progresses from here, Maloney says, one thing doesn't change.

"It's sad from every which angle," he said.


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