DNA ruling jeopardizes Maryland rape convictions

Baltimore woman forced to relive years-old crime

  • Shown is the Cherry Hill light rail stop, 1700 Cherry Hill Road.
Shown is the Cherry Hill light rail stop, 1700 Cherry Hill Road. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
June 09, 2012|By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

When she came home from working a shift at Subway and found Detective Caprice Smith's business card stuck in the front door with the words "Please call" scribbled on the back, the 10 life-changing minutes she had spent in the back seat of a Cherry Hill cab came flooding back.

For five years, the woman had waited for police to find the man who had raped her in the South Baltimore neighborhood when she was just 13. At some point, she had stopped believing it would ever happen.

"I thought there was nobody looking for him," she would later recall, crying. "I wasn't expecting them to come to my house. I can't even describe how I felt. It was something that I didn't want to bring back up again. I was just getting over it; I thought I was, but it took me [back] all over again."

The detective's investigation — based heavily on DNA evidence — eventually led to Gregory Leslie Brown's 2010 conviction on rape charges and a 60-year sentence, which he is serving at North Branch Correctional Institution in Western Maryland. His victim anticipated that he'd spend the rest of his life there.

But a decision this year by Maryland's highest court could change that. Ruling in an Eastern Shore case, the Court of Appeals held that a common police practice — collecting DNA when a suspect is arrested and matching it to samples taken in unsolved cases — was an unconstitutional search.

The decision raises the possibility that Brown could go free.

Law enforcement officials are fighting back, defending the DNA sampling program, and noting that it has led to 34 convictions, including two separate rape cases involving Brown. Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has pledged to seek an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Criminals are caught and convicted on fingerprint evidence every day. DNA evidence is the 21st century version of fingerprints," Gansler said in a statement.

Some constitutional law experts and civil liberties advocates say taking the samples violates the freedom guaranteed to Americans against unreasonable searches a theme endorsed in the Court of Appeals ruling. Across the nation, courts are split on the matter.

To Brown's victim, the legal issues spelled out in law books and argued in hushed courtrooms miss the point. Collecting a cotton swab of her rapist's DNA linked Brown to the crime, and no legal wrangling should undo that, says the woman, now 21. (The Baltimore Sun does not name the victims of sexual abuse.)

Having to confront the situation once again chills her: "It opened up a door that you put all kinds of locks on."

Reliving her rape

After the rape in June 2004, the rising eighth-grader at West Baltimore Middle School was ushered by police to Mercy Medical Center, where nurses kept her until 4 a.m. They inspected her body, interviewed her, collected DNA from the attack, treated her for possible sexually transmitted diseases and administered the "Plan B" pill to prevent pregnancy.

Her mother recounted during Brown's trial what she saw upon arriving at the hospital. She began to speak and then stopped, a courtroom video shows.

"I need a minute," the victim's mother said. She cried, cleared her throat, took her glasses off to wipe her eyes, and continued. "She was just sitting there on the bed with the blanket wrapped around her shoulders.

"I remember just lifting her head up to look at me. She just really didn't want to look at me. … I tried to comfort her as best as I could. She seemed so lost. She looked like something was taken from her. Her soul was gone. She wasn't my little girl that I seen earlier that day."

On June 28, 2004, the victim had been grounded by her mother for misbehaving and was supposed to have stayed in her room. When her mother left to work the late shift at Blockbuster, though, the teen took off to visit friends in Cherry Hill.

She had been waiting at the Cherry Hill light rail stop around 10 p.m. when Brown, then 37, walked up from an alley behind her. He asked if she needed a ride. The teen thought he was a man from a neighborhood convenience store who always flirted with her aunt when they shopped.

So, when he got in the front passenger seat of a cab, she got in the back.

"I thought, 'OK. I know this guy. He is going to take me home. Couldn't nothing possibly happen to me in a sedan.' But I was wrong," the young woman recalled in a recent interview.

She remembers exactly when she knew something was wrong: Brown climbed over the front seat and into the back of the cab.

He started kissing her neck. She said no. He told her to take off her underwear. She said no. The rest of the sexual assault continued in the same way, the victim said in the interview.

"I didn't want to lose my life that night. I was just crying. I kept saying, 'No.'"

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