A federal jury in Greenbelt convicted a Baltimore contractor on Wednesday of ordering the killing of a witness against him in a series of theft cases, rendering a swift verdict after a man wrongfully convicted of the death was cleared.
Prosecutors said contractor Jose Morales coordinated by phone with the gunman who shot Robert Long, an employee at Morales' construction company, twice in the head at close range in March 2008.
Baltimore police had arrested Demetrius Smith on the theory that he and Long had a dispute over drugs. Two witnesses said they saw him shoot Long.
But federal authorities examined the case, and Smith eventually was cleared. He was released from prison this year after five years behind bars.
"We've established that the state witnesses were lying and Smith had nothing at all to do with this crime," said Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland. "We're not usually in the business of getting people released from prison, but when it becomes clear someone has been wrongly convicted, it becomes our top priority to do that."
The evidence against Morales accumulated slowly, prosecutors said. He was arrested in Texas in 2008 on federal drug charges, told agents a few details about Long's killing and tried to shift the blame to his attorney, Stanley Needleman.
Morales continued to feed information to investigators but sought to mask his own involvement.
Needleman, who was charged with tax evasion in 2011, agreed to help authorities free Smith and build the case against Morales in exchange for a lesser sentence and to spare his wife from facing charges.
The evidence ultimately showed that Morales hired a member of the Dead Man Inc. gang to carry out the killing. That person is undergoing court-ordered drug treatment and has not been charged in the killing.
Federal prosecutors assembled the case using phone records and witnesses, some of whom knew Long and others who had learned later about Morales' involvement.
In closing arguments Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Clarke laid out extensive phone records that he said showed that Morales had organized the killing. Phone calls between Morales and the suspected killer continued until hours before the shooting, and another followed minutes after it.
"The hired hands called the boss to let him know that it was done," Clarke said.
Jonathan Zucker, one of Morales' attorneys, contended in closing arguments Wednesday that the government's case was built on witnesses who stood to gain lighter sentences through their cooperation and whose testimony was liable to "shift with the tides."
The prosecutors' use of the phone records to prove their theory was "speculation and guesswork," he said.
Morales' lawyers declined to comment on the verdict.
After hearing more than 30 witnesses and viewing 150 exhibits during two weeks of testimony, the jury took little more than two hours of deliberation before returning its verdict.
Morales, who is already serving lengthy sentences in federal drug cases, could be sentenced to life in prison in the murder case. The original theft charges against him were dropped.
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