A Baltimore man went free Thursday after almost six years in prison, as city prosecutors dropped murder conspiracy charges against him because a federal investigation led to the conviction of another man.
The man targeted by federal authorities pleaded guilty last year, but John Mooney waited six more months in prison. On Thursday, a prosecutor dropped the charges.
Mooney, 26, was not in court for the final hearing, and the action happened so quickly that his family — sitting in the back row of the courtroom — did not immediately realize what had taken place.
Outside, Mooney's attorney explained that it was over and then rushed off to tell her client the good news in the courthouse lockup.
"He don't even know yet," said Donna Greeley, Mooney's mother. "It's crazy."
The last time the family was together — Mooney in chains and with prison glass between them — Greeley said her son thought the state's attorney's office might have another try at convicting him in the 2007 killing of Keith Ray.
But Baltimore prosecutors said Thursday that after a review of the evidence, they did not have enough to move forward with the case. They did not say they were sure of Mooney's innocence.
And as Mooney's family welcomed home a son who once seemed lost, Ray's sister said she was left feeling "hurt and angry."
"My brother is dead and gone, and my family still [suffers]," said Felisha Ray, who remains convinced that Mooney was involved in her brother's death.
Ray and Mooney were friends; an Episcopal priest in Remington recalled seeing them in September 2007, Mooney urging Ray to back down from a confrontation with a police officer.
Then, a few weeks later, Ray's body was discovered in a wooded area next to the 600 block of Wyman Park Drive, already decomposing under a pile of logs.
He had been there a few days after having been shot in the head, according to court documents. Mooney was charged with murder and murder conspiracy the following year. A jury found him guilty on the conspiracy charge.
At his 2010 trial, according to court documents, one witness said he had seen Ray and Mooney together shortly before Ray was killed. Another said Mooney had drunkenly boasted about killing the victim. A third witness gave robbery as a motive and implicated other people in the killing — including someone identified as "Cappo."
No one else was charged in the case, but Cappo, it turned out, is the nickname of Kyle Stevens, who admitted to the killing in front of a federal judge last summer, according to court records.
"It was right in front of their face," said Michele Nethercott, Mooney's attorney.
Stevens' role in the murder came up by chance in a wide-ranging federal wiretap investigation into the Dead Man Incorporated prison gang. And in January 2013, he was indicted in federal court, accused of killing Ray and another man in an act of revenge, after his victims allegedly broke into the home of a drug dealer.
When federal prosecutors realized that Mooney had been convicted in one of the murders, they began reviewing the evidence, according to U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein.
"Based on the investigation, we concluded that he was not guilty of the crime," Rosenstein said.
After he pleaded guilty, Stevens agreed to be interviewed by prosecutors from the city state's attorney's office, according to court papers Nethercott filed in November to get Mooney a new trial. In that interview, Stevens said Mooney had nothing to do with the killing, according to the documents.
A week after those papers were field, Stevens was sentenced to 32 years in prison, earning three years off his time, which Nethercott wrote had been offered for truthfully cooperating in the reinvestigation of the Mooney case.
At the November hearing, Stevens offered a brief apology to Felisha Ray, who watched from the public benches, acknowledging that he took something from her family that he could never hope to replace.
U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett agreed to the sentence negotiated by prosecutors, but as he surveyed the case he said Stevens' youth at the time of the murders was especially troubling.
"It's just extraordinary what's going on in this city," Bennett said. "It should be shocking to me, but it's not."