Dante Parrish has been in a similar situation before. Convicted in a 1999 murder, he convinced the Innocence Project and a judge that case hinged on bad evidence, and he was freed from prison.
Now Parrish, 37, is asking a jury to reach the same conclusion in the killing of 15-year-old Jason Mattison, a vibrant teenager from East Baltimore who was gagged, slashed and stuffed into a closet in 2009.
In closing arguments Wednesday, Parrish's defense attorney, Bridget Shepherd, told jurors that investigators had coerced statements from flawed witnesses, failed to test evidence and tailored a case that pointed to Parrish.
"This case wasn't investigated, this case was created," Shepherd told the jury.
Jurors don't know of Parrish's past — criminal history is not admissible as they consider the current charges in Mattison's death. But prosecutors say the evidence this time is overwhelming. Parrish gave statements to detectives acknowledging that he participated in beating and gagging the teen, but he pinned the killing on an unknown person.
Two of Mattison's relatives who were in the house and heard screams testified that they saw Parrish partially naked in the room, appearing to stand over someone. And a print of Parrish's hand, in Mattison's blood, was found on a bedroom door, prosecutors say.
Parrish "showed no remorse, no hesitation" in killing Mattison, Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Hastings told the jury, with State's Attorney Gregg K. Bernstein looking on from the seating gallery. "Don't show any in convicting him for it."
Mattison 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. Talkative, bright and friendly, the lanky teen also made no secret that he was gay, though that led to family problems, and Hastings said in opening statements that Mattison "went from place to place to keep a roof over his head."
He was in an upstairs bedroom at his great-aunt's home on Nov. 10, 2009, with adults downstairs passed out on drugs, when the attack occurred. Prosecutors showed the jury graphic photos of the teen's crumpled body, his pants around his knees, his neck gashed open and a bedsheet stuffed deep into his throat. Hastings threw her arm forward as she clicked through a slide show, emphasizing each time she said Mattison was cut by a box cutter.
"Jason died a painful death, a slow death, and died at the age of 15, alone," Hastings said.
Parrish was convicted in 1999 of killing a man in East Baltimore, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Subsequent appeals were unsuccessful until the Innocence Project helped him get a new trial in 2008, in part because of witness identification of a gun he said he had never owned.
Parrish entered an Alford plea, acknowledging there was enough evidence to convict him but maintaining his innocence. He was credited with time served and released. The Innocence Project has stood by the case.
Detectives quickly identified Parrish as a suspect in Mattison's death — too quickly, Shepherd said. She said prosecutors pushed people in the house with a foggy recollection of what happened or an incentive to lie to make direct statements implicating Parrish.
As for Parrish's words — he told detectives in a taped statement that he helped an unknown man attack Mattison — Shepherd said they were the result of pressure and "disorientation" tactics by detectives. She said Baltimore police interrogation techniques were "the same as [at] Guantanamo Bay," drawing a quick objection from the prosecutor.
Shepherd jammed a box cutter, similar to the one police say was used in the crime, onto a notepad, asking if jurors believed such a tool could fracture someone's skull. She said witnesses at the home weren't separated to prevent them from coordinating their stories, and she faulted police for not testing notable items for DNA.
"You have a lot of hard work in front of you," she told the jury.