State and federal prosecutors have had two explanations for how Robert Long ended up dead. In the first, he was killed over a dispute with a drug dealer. In the second, he was killed because he agreed to testify against one of his co-conspirators in a scheme to steal construction equipment.
The first explanation — backed up by two eyewitnesses — proved good enough for a Baltimore jury to convict Demetrius Smith of murder in 2010. But authorities now acknowledge that account was wrong, and Smith has been freed.
At a trial scheduled to begin Tuesday, federal prosecutors plan to lay out the second explanation as they seek to convict Jose Morales of organizing Long's death.
"It's a murder case that the government feels strongly about because of the principle it stands for," Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandra Wilkinson said, according a transcript of a hearing in a related case. "[Smith] is a man who is innocent, has been convicted of a murder that he didn't commit, and the government's effort to undo that wrong starts with Jose Morales."
Morales' involvement, alleged in filings in the federal case, came to light after he and his attorney were charged in separate federal investigations.
Morales, 37, is accused of hiring a member of the Dead Man Incorporated prison gang to kill Long in March 2008, after Morales learned that Long was working with authorities against him.
Morales' name had surfaced in the original investigation — police said they discovered that he had made threats against Long — and Smith's lawyer sought to identify him as another potential suspect at the trial.
Police never interviewed Morales, and prosecutors called two eyewitnesses who testified they saw Smith arguing with Long before shooting him.
"None of the evidence led to Mr. Morales," a detective testified, according to court documents.
Morales' attorney declined to comment.
But while police zeroed in on Smith, federal authorities were uncovering elements of the case against Morales.
"The government was quite aware that there was a possible injustice floating around the Baltimore City courthouse," Wilkinson said, according to the hearing transcript.
Nancy Forster, the attorney who prepared the appeal, said that despite her misgivings about the evidence, there was not much she could do.
"I wasn't surprised that the jury found him guilty because when you have any eyewitness come in and testify, 'I saw this person shoot this person,' a jury's not going to ignore that," Forster said.
Morales had confessed his role in the killing to his longtime lawyer Stanley Needleman shortly after it happened, prosecutors wrote in filings in the federal murder for hire case, but Needleman thought the information was protected by attorney-client privilege.
It was Morales himself who poked a hole in that normally ironclad protection, prosecutors wrote.
A month after Smith was charged with murder in Baltimore, federal authorities arrested Morales at a Texas airport on charges of trying to smuggle six kilograms of cocaine back home. In an interview with one agent, Morales said it was Needleman who had arranged for Long to be killed, according to a summary of his statement included in court records.
Morales later recanted that story, according to another filing. But Needleman felt that Morales' attempts to implicate him in the killing opened the door for him to tell federal authorities in Baltimore what he knew, in hopes they might show leniency on separate tax evasion charges he faced.
Needleman's attorney declined to comment.
As the federal investigation proceeded, Smith filed a motion for a new trial based on the new evidence, and the charges against him were dropped in August 2012. He was released this year after spending almost five years in custody.
"The wrongful conviction of Demetrius Smith illustrates how easily under certain circumstances an innocent person can be convicted of the most serious crimes," said Smith's attorney, Michelle Nethercott.
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