Closing arguments attempt to sway jury in Harris trial

Prosecution and defense put best face on cases; jury to begin deliberating Friday

September 30, 2010|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

After 13 days of testimony from more than two-dozen witnesses and reams of often-complex evidence, the jury hearing the case against three men accused of killing former Baltimore Councilman Kenneth N. Harris is set to begin deliberations Friday.

Both sides vigorously defended their cases in closing arguments Thursday. The death of Harris, one defense lawyer said, was "the murder of the century in this city."

From the prosecution's perspective, the case against Gary Collins, 22, Jerome Williams, 17, and Charles McGaney, 22, is rock-solid, backed by DNA evidence recovered near the scene of the crime. A witness identified two of the defendants in surveillance videos taken near the site of the fatal hold-up of a jazz club in a Northeast Baltimore shopping plaza on Sept. 20, 2008.

The defense argued that the poor quality of the videos makes any real identification impossible and that the DNA evidence is meaningless and is tainted because of prior contamination problems in the Baltimore Police Department's crime lab.

"The numbers don't add up," Jerome Bivens, who represents Williams, told the jury during his closing Thursday afternoon. "You can't convict somebody when you have questions in your mind."

Bivens suggested that DNA evidence is the product of "perverted science," and that crime lab technicians had come to conclusions demanded of them by detectives in a high-profile case.

"I'm sure they thought this case would help their careers," he said of the DNA analysts and other technicians who testified. The notoriety of the Harris killing, he said, impelled "the powers that be" in Baltimore to find scapegoats, and fast.

"We can't keep our elected officials safe," Bivens said. "Somebody has to be locked up."

Bivens also suggested a racial animus in the state's case against the defendants, who are black. "Nowadays, we don't cry wolf — we say a black guy did it," Bivens, who is black, said to the jury, all but one of whom are black.

Earlier, during her closing, Assistant State's Attorney Cynthia M. Banks told the jury that the defendants went to the New Haven Lounge "locked and loaded" to commit a crime, and that they left behind a trail of evidence. Traces of the men's DNA were found on bandanas, surgical gloves, a coat and a Halloween mask, all linked to the defendants' unique biological makeup, Banks said.

She acknowledged that their fingerprints were not found at the scene of the robbery, but said it was because all wore gloves, a point the defense contested.

Banks projected onto a screen an image from a slightly out-of-focus surveillance video that included the captioned names of the defendants with an arrow pointed at each of the men — Williams on the left, Collins in the middle and McGaney on the right — as, Banks said, they walked away from the camera shortly before the hold-up.

She then showed other images taken outside and inside the New Haven Lounge, displaying for the jury a detailed timeline of what she said were the defendants' actions during the robbery. The killing of Harris, who was shot as he tried to flee in his car, was not captured on video.

Banks described how Harris and his friend Keith Covington, the club's owner, emerged from the front door after the New Haven Lounge closed for the night. "The moment they walk out that door, they're ambushed, from the left and from the right," the prosecutor said. One of the assailants led Covington back inside with "a gun pointed to the back of his head" while another followed Harris to his car, where his female companion awaited.

Using the digital clock displays from the videos, Banks timed the movements of Williams, the man she said was the gunman, and estimated that "the murder of Mr. Harris took 23 seconds" before Williams joined his accomplices inside the club.

"If Kenny gets away, the 911 call is going to be made, you know that," Banks said, providing a possible motive for the killing.

Inside the club, employees were robbed and the safe emptied of about $2,000 cash, after which the three robbers fled through a rear door. As they ran through an adjoining neighborhood, they disposed of the bandanas, the gloves, a coat and the mask, items that were later found and linked to the defendants, Banks said.

But Jason E. Silverstein, a lawyer who represents McGaney, argued that it made no sense to assert that on the one hand the robbers had pulled off a crime worthy of "criminal masterminds" and on the other to claim that they were "dumb enough" to dispose of crucial evidence so close to the scene of the crime, where it could be found.

"How ridiculously moronic is that?" Silverstein asked. "These boys are being railroaded here."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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