Attorneys for a Baltimore man sentenced to life in prison nearly 40 years ago argued for his freedom Tuesday, claiming that police pressured Jesse Barnes — then a scared and "mentally deficient" teenager — into making a false murder confession.
"The circumstances of this case are tragic, and we think there's been a wrong of some great magnitude," defense attorney Michael Imbroscio said during his closing statement Tuesday in a post-conviction hearing that has dragged on over multiple days for more than a year.
In 1971, Barnes confessed to killing his 15-year-old girlfriend, Cynthia Vaughn, though the defense argues that police could find no supporting evidence and that some witness statements appeared to contradict the admission.
His defense team now says the confession was coerced, but Assistant State's Attorney Sharon Holback said Tuesday that the state "vehemently and firmly believes that [Barnes] was fairly and properly convicted."
A ruling on whether he deserves a new trial could take months. In the meantime, his case joins at least a half-dozen others filed by convicted inmates that have reached the hearing stage in Maryland courts this year.
A woman convicted of murdering her infant in 2007 won a resentencing hearing held in Baltimore last month. A Montgomery County man was acquitted of murder charges in October after spending 15 years in prison. A Baltimore man was released from a life sentence in July after his 1988 rape and murder convictions were overturned.
And in May, Tyrone Jones became a free man — after he'd served a decade in prison — when Baltimore prosecutors declined to retry him on murder charges. His previous conviction was overturned earlier this year after a city judge learned that evidence that might have helped Jones was mistakenly withheld years earlier.
Jones was one of 29 people worldwide — two from Maryland — whose convictions were overturned in 2010 with help from "Innocence Network" members: 63 organizations offering pro bono legal help to those believed to have been wrongly convicted. And Barnes' case began that way, taken on by Maryland's Innocence Project, a joint effort by the state public defender's office and the University of Baltimore. It has since been taken over by Imbroscio's firm.
Innocence Network president Keith Findley said in an end-of-year statement this week that "exonerations tell so much about the problems with the criminal justice system," where even simple mistakes can have devastating effects.
In his statement, Findley called on political leaders to "put checks on the enormous power that police and prosecutors wield and improve the public defender system."
Correcting the record after the fact is too late, lawyers on both sides say, noting that prison changes people, leaving many of them without the skills to survive on the outside. But prosecutors are also quick to point out that inmates released because of legal technicalities do not qualify as "exonerations," and they question whether criminals are being set free.
Baltimore Assistant State's Attorney Donald Giblin, who dropped the charges against Jones in May, said at the time that the decision doesn't mean Jones "didn't do" the crime, but that the case is simply "impossible to retry" years after the fact.
And one man freed by the Innocence Project last year, Dante Parrish, was later arrested in connection with the rape and fatal stabbing of a teenage boy.
Barnes — a 57-year-old black man —missed his own hearing Tuesday for the second time, because the Department of Corrections again made the mistake of bringing a young white man with the same name to court in his place.
Barnes was just a teenager with an IQ of 62, according to court records, when he signed a police-written confession on May 3, 1971, claiming that he had participated in the sexual assault and murder of his girlfriend days earlier.
The document outlined a brutal attack; Barnes and two other boys allegedly beat Vaughn at a swimming pool in Cherry Hill. The confession said one of them raped her, all three sodomized her, and the two accomplices stabbed her before dragging her bloody body several hundred yards to a bank along the Patapsco River.
But the defense said police found no evidence of a beating at the pool, nor drag marks to the river. They couldn't find any relevant fingerprints in the Corvair that Barnes said they rode in, and the car turned out to be inoperable the night of the killing.
There was also no evidence to show that Barnes had been near the crime scene at the Patapsco, the defense argued. The autopsy report said there was no indication on Vaughn's body of injuries that would be expected from a sexual assault.