Harris murder trial prepares for closing arguments

Defense may put on a fourth witness before resting case; prosecution juggles charges against defendants

September 29, 2010|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the trial of three men accused of killing former Baltimore Councilman Kenneth N. Harris will get a last chance on Thursday to convince jurors of the merits of their respective cases.

Since the trial began Sept. 13, the jury in Baltimore Circuit Court has listened — sometimes wearily — to a long stream of prosecution witnesses testify in support of the state's contention that Charles McGaney, Gary Collins and Jerome Williams were responsible for the death of Harris, who stopped by a Northeast Baltimore jazz club just as it was about to be robbed at gunpoint and was shot as he tried to flee.

The defense put up just three witnesses and has reserved the option of swearing in one more on Thursday morning. The judge, David Ross, will then give the jury its instructions for deliberating, followed by closing arguments from a prosecutor, all three defense attorneys and, finally, another prosecutor.

Each closing argument could last as long as 90 minutes, or even longer, which means that the jury might not begin deliberating until Friday, said McGaney's lawyer, Jason E. Silverstein.

In preparation for handing over their case to the jury, prosecutors pared down the charges. The prosecutors, Cynthia M. Banks and Donald J. Giblin, elected to pursue first-degree felony murder charges rather than first-degree murder. The latter would have required proving premeditation — that the defendants had planned to kill Harris before holding up the club.

Felony murder requires a lesser burden of proof than the premeditation charge, said Joseph Sviatko, a spokesman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office. The law defines felony murder as a killing that takes place while the defendants are in the act of committing another felony — in this case, an armed robbery.

"From a layman's perspective, it's no different," Sviatko said. "First-degree felony murder is still on the table, and the penalties for both charges are the same — life in prison. It's not necessary for the state to prove that the defendants intended to kill the victim."

The defense's witnesses included a man named Michael Eaddy, who told the jury that he was sitting in his car outside a Domino's restaurant near the jazz club on Sept. 20, 2008, when he heard a bang. Less than a minute later, Eaddy said, he saw three men running from the scene toward Loch Raven Boulevard. If true, it could cast doubt on the prosecution's assertion "that the people who did the shooting also committed the robbery" of the jazz club, said Silverstein, the defense attorney.

The club's owner, Keith Covington, testified earlier in the trial that the robbers ran out of the club from a rear exit, which Eaddy would not have been able to see from his position out in front. Eaddy acknowledged under cross-examination that he had no idea whether the three men he saw had been involved in a crime.

Another defense witness was Joseph Harant, a trace analyst for the Baltimore Police Department's crime lab, who said that detectives did not submit evidence in the case — including a Halloween mask worn by one of the robbers — for analysis of gunshot residue.

Evelyn Grant, a forensic artist with the Baltimore County Police Department who was asked to produce a sketch of one of the suspects based on footage from a surveillance camera, testified that she had declined to do so because of the image's poor quality.

"She didn't want to give a false representation," Silverstein said, "and have someone falsely accused."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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