Prosecutors drop charges in South Baltimore robbery

Case of false identification an example of the difficulty with recalling attackers

March 30, 2012|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Two men accused of robbing a couple who were walking home from a Federal Hill restaurant last weekend have been freed from jail and cleared of all charges by prosecutors, who acknowledge it was a case of mistaken identification.

One victim said she would "never forget" the faces of her assailants. But surveillance video shows the man identified by the victims as the gunman was in a pizzeria on Light Street on Saturday a few minutes after 1 a.m., the same time the victims were being robbed of jewelry and cellphones 15 blocks away at Covington and Clement streets.

"I feel bad for what happened to them, but it wasn't me," Julien Rosaly said Thursday evening after getting out of jail, where he was held without bail for four days. "The police said I did a robbery. I said, 'No. That's not me. I was at Maria D's. Go check right now.'"

The arrests were made as police have ramped up efforts to crack down on robberies in the city, and police boasted of their quick action on Twitter. But the mistaken identification of Rosaly confirms what has been found in long string of academic studies and court rulings around the country — that eyewitnesses under stress have poor records in correctly pointing out their attackers.

Prosecutors generally try to avoid cases built solely on the word of a single victim or witness, and police procedures for showing potential suspects to victims is evolving.

"Memory is not like a videotape," said James Doyle, the former director of the Center for Modern Forensic Practices at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "Memory is very complicated and very fragile. We run into lots and lots of people who were very certain and very wrong."

The use of DNA evidence over the past two decades has helped shed light on the problem; authorities say that three-quarters of people convicted of crimes and later cleared by the forensic tests were mistakenly identified.

"The witness believes she is right," said Baltimore defense attorney Margaret A. Mead, who is not involved in the robbery case. "She could pass a polygraph on that identification and be just as wrong. That's why you really need more than a single witness identification."

The victim in Saturday's attack, a former Ravens cheerleader, did not return phone calls Thursday seeking comment. She told police her attacker ordered her to take off her diamond engagement ring and gold wedding band, worth $22,300, as another man held a gun to the back of her husband's head. Both rode away on bicycles, the victims said.

Lauren Spates, 27, recounted the attack during an interview earlier this week. She said she studied the robbers' faces because "I knew it would be the only thing that would get them."

Police said Spates identified Rosaly after he had been detained on Leadenhall Street about an hour after the robbery. She identified the other suspect as Nicholes Maultsby, picking his picture from a photo array at a police station. Both were charged with armed robbery, assault and handgun violations.

Police did not check the pizza restaurant's tapes until after Rosaly and his housemate Maultsby had been charged with armed robbery and assault, and after detectives raided their rowhouse on Leadenhall Street looking for a revolver and the victim's belongings, which have yet to be found.

Anthony Guglielmi, chief spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, defended the arrests, which came the same weekend that police across the city launched a robbery initiative to combat a growing number of street holdups.

The arrests, the spokesman said, "were based on the statement from the victim positively identifying the two individuals. Police had probable cause. … Our job is to go where the evidence leads us." He called the identification by Spates "pretty overwhelming."

Guglielmi said police acted quickly to remove two possible armed robbers from the street, and he said detectives worked just as quickly to free them when they learned of the restaurant surveillance video.

"We immediately contacted the state's attorney's office to determine the next best step," he said, adding that analyzing the tape was made a priority.

Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said that the faulty identification of Rosaly "raised concerns about the identification of Mr. Maultsby," and so charges against him were dropped as well. Maultsby said he was at a friend's house until 3 a.m. Saturday.

Cheshire said "the arrests were appropriate given the information police had at the time."

But Rosaly and Maultsby, who have had nonviolent run-ins with the law (those charges also were dropped), said police failed to do their jobs by not checking out their alibis before leveling charges.

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