A Baltimore prosecutor offered jurors in a murder trial a painful and troubling portrait Wednesday of the victim's final moments, describing how a killer "suffocated and butchered" the boy, whose screams for help went unheard by a relative who she said had passed out from heroin.
Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Hastings held up two oversize pictures of 15-year-old Jason Mattison Jr., pointed to the suspect sitting just feet from the Circuit Court jury and said the victim "met with a nightmare, and that nightmare is Dante Parrish."
Hastings told jurors during her opening statement that there is overwhelming evidence to prove Parrish's guilt, including his palm print outlined in Jason's blood, which police said they found on a closet door frame next to the boy's body on Nov. 10, 2009, in an East Baltimore rowhouse.
But Parrish's lawyer, Bridget Shepherd of the public defender's office, warned jurors of a long, complicated case in which she plans to call experts to challenge DNA and fingerprint evidence and show how she says police trampled and otherwise compromised the crime scene.
Shepherd accused detectives of naming Parrish, 37, a suspect minutes after Jason's body was found, issuing an arrest warrant before the medical examiner had even moved the body, and coercing witnesses with shady pasts and pending criminal cases into confirming the police's preconceived version of the crime.
"This is what happens when you solve a case three minutes after you arrive," Shepherd said, saying she would challenge whether the palm print was in blood and would ask why the victim's DNA evidence and blood weren't found on her client's clothing.
Jason had been a standout at West Baltimore's Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, a school oriented toward students who want to become doctors, nurses and paramedics. Lauded as talkative, bright and friendly, the lanky teen made no secret that he was gay, though that led to family problems.
He felt comfortable at school, where 80 percent of the 425 students were female, often arriving before the first bell and staying long after the day had ended to do homework. People, including his family, were less accepting of his sexual identity, and the prosecutor said he was not welcome in his grandmother's or mother's homes.
"He went from place to place to keep a roof over his head," Hastings said in court. He felt welcome at the house owned by his great-aunt on Llewellyn Avenue, but the prosecutor said there was little adult supervision. Many of the house's occupants spent their days shooting heroin, drinking and playing cards, and kept the front door open to random visitors. she said.
It was a home, though, where "Jason could go and not be judged," Hastings said.
In November, Hastings said, Parrish knocked on the door and asked to live there. The prosecutor said the great-aunt agreed, recognizing him as an old family friend even though she had not seen him in two decades.
What the family didn't know, and what jurors were not told Wednesday, was that Parrish had just gotten out of prison after winning a new trial on a conviction for murder in 1999. The Innocence Project, attorneys who fight post-conviction appeals, had taken up Parrish's case and convinced a judge that he had been found guilty based on false witness identification and that he had never owned the gun used in the killing.
Parrish took what is called an Alford plea, which allowed him to maintain his innocence while conceding that the state had enough evidence to convict him a second time. He was sentenced to the 10 years he had already served, effectively reducing a 30-year sentence by two-thirds.
On the night of Nov. 9, Hastings said, three older people who usually stayed in the house left, leaving Jason alone with his great-aunt, her brother and a 13-year-old girl. She said Parrish used this opportunity to attack Jason as he slept in his upstairs bedroom.
The prosecutor said Parrish pulled down the boy's pants and tried to rape him. His screams — "help me" — caught the attention of the girl, who Hastings said tried to wake the great-aunt, who along with her brother had passed out from drugs.
Hastings said the girl finally roused the great-aunt and got her to open the door to Jason's room, where they saw the attack taking place. But the prosecutor said Parrish yelled at them to go away, and the great-aunt, unable to comprehend what was happening, passed out on a nearby bed.
"There was no one to act on his screams," the prosecutor said.
That is when Parrish killed Jason, Hastings said, describing the attack in detail. She said a pillowcase was stuffed so far down his mouth that it pushed his tongue down his throat, choking him. She said he was cut 15 times on the head, neck and face, three times so hard it fractured his skull, and that the artery in his neck had been cut in three places.
Hastings said Parrish then hid the body in a tiny closet, turned the blood-soaked mattress over, washed down the walls and cleaned himself up. She said he unscrewed a ceiling light bulb, cut power to the house and walked out with a television set to make it look like a robbery.
Police found the body hours later after the other occupants returned and followed a trail of blood up the banister to the room. Hastings told jurors they will hear about the palm print, along with the suspect's fingerprints and bloody DNA on a washcloth, on the light bulb that had been removed and from under Jason's fingernails.
But Shepherd told jurors that case is far more complex and that police did preliminary DNA tests but not complete examinations, leaving it open as to whether the palm print was made of blood. She said DNA was found belonging to a still-unidentified man, and suggested that a man who came into the house and restored power was a suspect initially overlooked by police.
"Don't do what police did and make up your minds in three minutes," Shepherd told the jury. She said her client sticks by the first story he told police after his arrest — that everyone in the house had passed out from heroin, he had done cocaine, and that he took the television to sell for more drugs and wasn't home when Jason was killed.