Prosecutors drop charges in South Baltimore robbery

Two men accused of robbing a couple who were walking home from a Federal Hill restaurant last weekend have been freed from jail and cleared of all charges by prosecutors, who acknowledge it was a case of mistaken identification.

One victim said she would "never forget" the faces of her assailants. But surveillance video shows the man identified by the victims as the gunman was in a pizzeria on Light Street on Saturday a few minutes after 1 a.m., the same time the victims were being robbed of jewelry and cellphones 15 blocks away at Covington and Clement streets.

"I feel bad for what happened to them, but it wasn't me," Julien Rosaly said Thursday evening after getting out of jail, where he was held without bail for four days. "The police said I did a robbery. I said, 'No. That's not me. I was at Maria D's. Go check right now.'"

The arrests were made as police have ramped up efforts to crack down on robberies in the city, and police boasted of their quick action on Twitter. But the mistaken identification of Rosaly confirms what has been found in long string of academic studies and court rulings around the country — that eyewitnesses under stress have poor records in correctly pointing out their attackers.

Prosecutors generally try to avoid cases built solely on the word of a single victim or witness, and police procedures for showing potential suspects to victims is evolving.

"Memory is not like a videotape," said James Doyle, the former director of the Center for Modern Forensic Practices at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "Memory is very complicated and very fragile. We run into lots and lots of people who were very certain and very wrong."

The use of DNA evidence over the past two decades has helped shed light on the problem; authorities say that three-quarters of people convicted of crimes and later cleared by the forensic tests were mistakenly identified.

"The witness believes she is right," said Baltimore defense attorney Margaret A. Mead, who is not involved in the robbery case. "She could pass a polygraph on that identification and be just as wrong. That's why you really need more than a single witness identification."

The victim in Saturday's attack, a former Ravens cheerleader, did not return phone calls Thursday seeking comment. She told police her attacker ordered her to take off her diamond engagement ring and gold wedding band, worth $22,300, as another man held a gun to the back of her husband's head. Both rode away on bicycles, the victims said.

Lauren Spates, 27, recounted the attack during an interview earlier this week. She said she studied the robbers' faces because "I knew it would be the only thing that would get them."

Police said Spates identified Rosaly after he had been detained on Leadenhall Street about an hour after the robbery. She identified the other suspect as Nicholes Maultsby, picking his picture from a photo array at a police station. Both were charged with armed robbery, assault and handgun violations.

Police did not check the pizza restaurant's tapes until after Rosaly and his housemate Maultsby had been charged with armed robbery and assault, and after detectives raided their rowhouse on Leadenhall Street looking for a revolver and the victim's belongings, which have yet to be found.

Anthony Guglielmi, chief spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, defended the arrests, which came the same weekend that police across the city launched a robbery initiative to combat a growing number of street holdups.

The arrests, the spokesman said, "were based on the statement from the victim positively identifying the two individuals. Police had probable cause. … Our job is to go where the evidence leads us." He called the identification by Spates "pretty overwhelming."

Guglielmi said police acted quickly to remove two possible armed robbers from the street, and he said detectives worked just as quickly to free them when they learned of the restaurant surveillance video.

"We immediately contacted the state's attorney's office to determine the next best step," he said, adding that analyzing the tape was made a priority.

Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said that the faulty identification of Rosaly "raised concerns about the identification of Mr. Maultsby," and so charges against him were dropped as well. Maultsby said he was at a friend's house until 3 a.m. Saturday.

Cheshire said "the arrests were appropriate given the information police had at the time."

But Rosaly and Maultsby, who have had nonviolent run-ins with the law (those charges also were dropped), said police failed to do their jobs by not checking out their alibis before leveling charges.

Rosaly said he graduated from high school and had a basketball scholarship to a community college in New Jersey, but returned to Baltimore when he injured his leg. He said he was fired from his job at Burger King after he was arrested, and that police ransacked his house and seized his last $800, which he has yet to get back.

"Everybody is eyeing me," said Rosaly, who got out of jail Wednesday night. "My picture was all over TV. What happens to me now? Who is going to hire me? I'm the guy on television who was robbing people."

He said he had a hard time convincing his own family he was innocent, and that his 65-year-old grandmother with a bad heart came down from New York to attend his bail hearing, only to watch a judge order him held without bond.

Rosaly said he and Maultsby had been on their bikes in Federal Hill and Riverside earlier Friday, but well before the robbery. The videotape from Maria D's shows him in the restaurant on Saturday from 12:47 a.m. to 1:42 a.m.

He said he walked home with another friend and was stopped by police near his house on Leadenhall Street. He said he could make out two people in the back of one squad car and that police turned a spotlight on his friend and then on him.

"I heard the officer say about my friend, 'He's good, he can go,'" Rosaly recalled. "Then the cop said about me, 'We got a confirmed suspect.' The officer told me, 'I hope you got a lawyer and a lot of money, because you're going away for a long time.'"

A police report says the victims described the suspects as black males, one with a darker complexion than the other, with the gunman wearing dark clothing, jeans, a do-rag on his head and a black hoodie. Rosaly said he was wearing a navy blue jacket with a white shirt underneath — but no hood — sweatpants and a Muslim head covering. He is Hispanic; Maultsby is black.

Maultsby was arrested later on Saturday as he walked from a store to the house he shares with Rosaly. He said he hadn't heard about the robbery and that he too protested, to no avail. Both said they were locked up in a cell with seven other detainees and forced to sleep on the floor.

Both men blame police more than the victims for their arrests. "They just grabbed two people," Rosaly said. "They just wanted to make a case and do their job. But they didn't do their job."

Said Maultsby, "When do you arrest someone and then look for evidence? … How could those people think it was us?"

A myriad of factors complicate witness identifications, a topic that has been studied at length by criminologists and psychologists, and debated by judges all the way up to the Supreme Court.

"We try to make this an exact science even though it's not one," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger. He said he won't avoid taking a single-witness case to court, but conceded that such prosecutions "are difficult to prove."

The county prosecutor said that while some studies show that people thrust into life-and-death situations can't accurately recall events and faces, other theories show "they have a heightened sense of their surroundings. They're really paying attention because they know it matters."

Even how police show witnesses pictures of potential suspects is under scrutiny. The U.S. Department of Justice suggests that detectives show mug shots one at a time, instead of in a group, as Baltimore does. The theory is that a sequential showing forces witnesses to make a judgment about each picture, rather than comparing them together.

Defense attorneys routinely challenge witness identifications, and courts have increasingly allowed defendants to challenge the way in which police show photo arrays or conduct lineups.

Doyle, the former John Jay College researcher, said witnesses "are right a lot of the time. The problem is it's very difficult to tell the ones who are right from the ones who are wrong."

And Doyle said that a witness' certainty that he or she has picked the right suspect is often wrong: "There's lots of information that indicates that a witness' certainty is a very bad indicator of a witnesses' accuracy."

Misidentification cases in Maryland

•In August 2007, a police officer arrested a man in the rape of a Roland Park grandmother in her home after noticing the man's similarity to an artist's rendering of the suspect. Police said the 59-year-old victim then picked the arrested man from a photo array. But eight months later, DNA evidence prompted police to drop the case against the man who had been arrested and charge a different man, who was convicted and sentenced to life plus 93 years in prison in 2010.

•In 2002, a man who had served 20 years for raping an English teacher in Baltimore County — she had identified him as her attacker during the court trial — was set free after DNA evidence proved he was not the assailant. The victim had picked the suspect from a photo array, and two other people who lived in the Towson apartment building said they saw him there around the time of the attack. The same DNA evidence implicated another suspect, who is now serving a 20-year sentence.

•In 1993, DNA evidence cleared death row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth, who was twice convicted of raping and killing a 9-year-old Eastern Shore girl after two children said they saw him walking away from the scene. He was the first inmate in the nation to be cleared by forensic evidence after having been found guilty. He had served eight years in prison and has since become an advocate of increased use of testing. Another man was convicted of killing the girl and is serving life in prison.

Source: Baltimore Sun files