Defense in Harris trial confident that witnesses cannot identify accused men

Attorneys concede that memories of fatal holdup might be clouded by fear, passage of time

September 15, 2010|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

On the third day of testimony in the trial of three men accused of killing a former Baltimore city councilman, defense attorneys seemed confident Wednesday that none of the witnesses who have testified so far has managed to pinpoint the defendants at the scene of the crime.

As the session broke for lunch, two of the lawyers described witnesses as unsure of what they had seen on the night Kenneth N. Harris died, and said that in some cases the witnesses contradicted each other.

"No one can identify anyone — even less than I thought," Jason Silverstein, who represents defendant Charles McGaney, said outside the courtroom. "And so far, no one has identified any of the evidence that they got DNA from, except for the mask."

Silverstein was referring to a Halloween mask of a skull that was shown to the jury and which was also plainly visible on one of the robbers' faces in a surveillance video captured inside the New Haven Lounge on Sept. 20, 2008, when the fatal holdup took place. The faces of the two other assailants were also covered.

Even the mask introduced as evidence presents problems for the prosecution, according to Silverstein. "It's gray," he said, "and in the video it looks white, and everyone says it was white." He did not address whether the mask might have appeared white on a low-resolution video taken in the glare of the bar's lights.

One of the witnesses to testify Wednesday morning, Sidney Matthews, who was tending bar at the New Haven on the night of the holdup, said it was the masked man who jumped over the bar, gun in hand, yet the video shows another man doing so and the masked man running around the end of the bar.

"He kept contradicting what the video showed," Silverstein said. He conceded, however, that people under severe stress — as they might be during an armed holdup — could have hazy recollections of some details, especially two years after the events being described.

"You understand why people might be scared," he said. "It's the middle of a robbery."

Another defense lawyer, Jerome Bivens, who represents Jerome Williams, said much the same thing. "We have to agree that these people are traumatized," he said, even as he questioned why Matthews had been uncertain as to which of the assailants did what.

"Who would know better "than the guy who was inside?" Bivens said.

While it is not unusual for defense attorneys to put a positive spin on their case as a trial proceeds, the two lawyers have made a point of addressing reporters' questions on the courthouse steps every day of the trial, in which testimony began Monday. The third defense attorney, Janice Bledsoe, who represents Gary Collins, has not been as talkative.

The defense has suffered its setbacks, however. Bivens has been chided repeatedly by the judge for a confrontational attitude toward the state's witnesses. He frequently uses sarcasm and interrupts their answers when cross-examining them, and makes a habit of directing his questions and his gaze toward the jury on the right side of the courtroom and not to the witnesses on the left.

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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