Timing is everything as court upholds conviction

Judges on appeals court say incriminating statement stands

September 23, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Timing is indeed everything.

The city police took too long on a routine traffic stop, so a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled that the 9mm semiautomatic handgun found in the car trunk and linked to a killing couldn't be shown at the defendant's trial.

But the suspect's jailhouse confession to a fellow inmate in a recreation room was made so long after his detention that the incriminating statement couldn't be considered coerced or prompted by his illegal arrest.

So ruled the judges on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in upholding the conviction of Ronald Cox of first-degree murder in the 2007 death of Todd Dargan on North Caroline Street.

Cox was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the shooting. His accomplice — and the man charged with firing the bullet into the back of the victim's head for a $15,000 fee — was acquitted by a jury.

It appears to be another judicial ruling akin to a legal game of Twister.

In December 2007, Baltimore Officer Milton Smith III, along with Detectives Derek Phyall and Eugene Bush, stopped a black Mercedes-Benz because the driver, identified as Cox, was not wearing a seat belt.

During the stop, a police dispatcher could be heard over the officer's radio broadcasting a description of a suspect from a shooting that had occurred 10 blocks away. The description fit that of the passenger.

Phyall testified at trial that Cox consented to a search of the car "by stepping out of his vehicle with his hands in the air," according to the appeals court ruling. The officer "admitted, however, that no verbal consent was given."

Detectives found the gun inside the trunk and arrested both men.

Prosecutors argued that the traffic stop was valid, as was the search of the trunk, "because the police had probable cause to believe that the vehicle contained evidence of a crime, based on the radio call regarding the shooting and that the passenger matched the description of the suspected shooter."

But Cox's attorney contended that 23 minutes elapsed between the time of the traffic stop at 12:30 p.m. and the broadcast of the shooting suspect. The lawyer said that 23 minutes was more than enough time for the officers to issue a traffic citation and send two men on their way.

Circuit Judge Shirley M. Watts, ruling she could not "find any other legitimate investigatory reason for detaining the two for 15 to 23 minutes if [police] had no evidence of a shooting in the area before 12:53." She added that the detention "exceeded the scope of the purported reason for the traffic stop."

That left prosecutors in the case without the gun, which had Cox's DNA on it, but with the confession he made to detainee Michael West at the Central Booking and Intake Center. Watts allowed that statement into evidence even though she ruled Cox had been held illegally.

The defense attorney argued to the appeals court that his client's statements should be stricken as "fruits of the illegal detention." The lawyer argued that absent his client's illegal arrest, "he would never have been in a position to talk to Michael West."

Again, timing is everything, and this time the length of Cox's detention, even though ruled illegal, worked against him.

The appeals judges ruled that "for evidence to be excluded under the 'fruits of the poisonous tree' doctrine, there must be a cause-and-effect relationship or nexus between the poisonous tree and its alleged fruit."

The judges said that there is no "mathematically precise test for determining at what point the taint has been purged by the lapse of time" but they noted "that the greater the time lapse between the illegality and the discovery of evidence the greater chance that the taint has been purged."

They cited precedent that 20 minutes is not enough time.

They cited precedent that 14 hours was enough time.

So the 20 hours Cox spent being held in jail was long enough, the judges ruled, that his confession was "sufficiently an act of free will to purge the primary taint" of his illegal arrest.

The conviction stands.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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