Shooting case shows pitfalls, troubles of prosecuting in Baltimore

Reluctant victim, no eyewitnesses, no gun complicates case; jurors acquit two shooting suspects

March 01, 2012|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

The victim was escorted into the Baltimore courtroom by guards. The four-time convicted drug dealer, wearing a blue prison jumpsuit as well as wrist and ankle shackles, said he didn't see who shot him in the back, but he told jurors that "word on the street" pinned it on "Dre" and "K-Rock."

Prosecutors had no other eyewitnesses, no gun, no bullet casings. One other issue complicated the case: The police detective originally assigned as the lead investigator also arrived at the courthouse in handcuffs — charged last summer with trafficking heroin — though he was never called to testify.

The trial that ended Thursday was fraught with many of the pitfalls common in the city's courthouse for years — a victim with a criminal past who didn't want to identify his assailants, a dearth of forensic evidence and questions about the thoroughness of the investigation.

The case also tested State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein's 2010 campaign promise to take to trial cases that his predecessor wouldn't — ones in which there is only a single witness without corroborating testimony.

Jurors took just three hours Thursday to acquit the defendants of attempted-murder, assault and gun charges, freeing 21-year-old Andre Royster and 22-year-old Kenny Leroy Hopewell, who had spent 18 months in jail awaiting their day in court.

"I think it was a total waste of time," said defense attorney Ivan J. Bates, who represented Royster, accused of pulling the trigger on Northwest Baltimore's Towanda Avenue in April 2010.

Bernstein, who declined to be interviewed, released a statement defending his stance.

"I promised the people of our city that I will take on the most challenging fights to make our streets safer," his statement said. "Now, when you actually try to win the most difficult cases, you occasionally lose … no matter how hard you worked. We didn't prevail this time, but you never prevail without trying to do so."

In his campaign, Bernstein called incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy too quick to plea-bargain cases away, saying it contributed to revolving-door justice that put repeat offenders back on the streets time after time. He said a prosecutor must "have the courage" to take on challenging cases in order to send a message to violent offenders.

Bates said he doubts Jessamy would have taken the suspects to trial for attempted murder given the meager evidence — one defendant's fingerprint from a plastic cup and a victim who picked the suspects from a photo lineup but was reluctant to name them in court.

The defense lawyer said one-witness cases can work, "but police have to at least attempt to corroborate the evidence somehow."

During the trial, Bates criticized police detectives for not finding a single person who was at the shooting scene — even though it was described as a virtual street party. He noted that Jessamy "wanted the police to do some work on a case like this."

Bates said prosecutors were offered a deal for the defendants to plead guilty to gun possession — "just so they could get out of jail." But he said Bernstein stepped in and declined, insisting that the defendants admit to using a handgun in the commission of a violent crime, which carries a five-year mandatory prison sentence.

Bernstein's spokesman, Mark Cheshire, confirmed Bates' account and said: "An outcome that did not result in prison time was unacceptable."

Bates said that a plea deal would at least have secured a conviction. "Jessamy would've got something," he said.

Hopewell has a past felony conviction for drug-dealing, and Royster was given probation before judgment in a prior assault case that Bates said stemmed from a fight. He said Royster attends school and works at the Baltimore Convention Center, and has been promised his job back.

The shooting on April 7, 2010, as presented by the prosecutor in her opening statement to jurors, was straightforward. While hanging out past midnight on Towanda Avenue, Mark Winchester, already high and drunk, refused to give Hopewell some of his marijuana.

Hopewell and his friend, Royster, pestered Winchester: "What about that weed?" Winchester answered, "Nope, I'm good."

Assistant State's Attorney Michelle Wilson said Royster then shot Winchester three times in the back and once in the forearm, and Hopewell chased the wounded man through two alleyways. She said Winchester glanced back once and took a swing at his pursuer, and then collapsed face down on Reisterstown Road, with $300 and eight vials of heroin in his pocket.

The lead detective on the case, Daniel G. Redd, spoke with Winchester at Sinai Hospital and compiled a list of names of people who had been on the street. Redd was transferred a month later, and his backup, Detective Alexi A. Correa, took over.

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