DNA could free inmate

A 71-year-old man who has spent two decades in prison will get a new trial, a judge has ruled, because a lab determined that genetic evidence from the victim is not his - making this the first Baltimore murder conviction to be turned around by new DNA testing.

Robert C. Griffin was found guilty in 1986 of stabbing and strangling 20-year-old Annie Cruse and leaving her body in Druid Hill Park. Circuit Judge Gale E. Raisin said in a hearing that the result from a recent DNA test is "so compelling" that Griffin deserves a new trial.

"I have no question but that the newly discovered DNA evidence is material to the case," she said. "This court is compelled to grant a new trial."

Prosecutors said that the right man is in jail and that they will pursue a new trial. Assistant State's Attorney Matthew Fraling evaluated the evidence against Griffin as "outstanding."

Prosecutors called the DNA evidence - sperm collected from the victim's body - irrelevant, saying they never claimed that the person who last had sex with Cruse was her killer.

Griffin, now bald and with glasses, has proclaimed his innocence for 20 years. "I want to thank you, your honor," he told the judge after the hearing.

"He was overwhelmed," said his attorney, Suzanne Drouet, who works with the Maryland public defender's Innocence Project. "He wants to live long enough to hug his grandchildren."

Michele Nethercott, head of the Baltimore-based innocence project - which focuses on righting what are believed to be wrongful convictions - said Griffin is an example of the importance of testing old DNA evidence. She said destroyed evidence and uncooperative prosecutors, particularly in Baltimore, have hindered the Innocence Project.

In Baltimore County, DNA testing led to the 1993 exoneration of Kirk Bloodsworth, making him the first death-row inmate in the United States to be freed by DNA. Bloodsworth spent nearly a decade in prison for the 1984 killing of a 9-year-old girl.

Griffin has not been exonerated, but the judge's ruling for a new trial paves the way for that, his attorneys said. Prosecutors disagree.

"All the DNA proves is that he did not have sex with her," Burns said. "That doesn't mean he didn't kill her."

The body of Annie Cruse was found on a Wednesday afternoon in September 1985, behind the reptile house at Druid Hill Park. She had been strangled and stabbed, and her clothing was torn and in disarray. The state medical examiner determined she'd been dead for about 36 hours.

Prosecutors described her as a paramour of Griffin, who was married and a little more than 30 years her senior. He was arrested and charged with her death. Griffin has said he did have a relationship with Cruse.

In a four-day trial in May 1986, the victim's sister, Jackie Cruse, testified that Griffin was with Annie Cruse Monday evening, around the suspected time of her death.

Another witness, who admitted to being drunk at the time, testified that Griffin admitted committing the crime.

Griffin's trial took unusual twists, with testimony about how the couple had a rocky relationship that included a forced abortion and a comment by a prosecutor during closing arguments that Griffin had given Cruse a venereal disease.

"My own reaction is that the prosecution conducted an ad hominem attack on the defendant," Judge Raisin said during her recent ruling.

A jury convicted Griffin, and he was sentenced to life in prison. Griffin's parole has been denied, Drouet said, and he is serving his time in Hagerstown.

At the motion for a new trial held Monday, Drouet told the judge, "We're here today because of what can only be described as basically a miracle discovery."

The state medical examiner had found sperm inside Cruse's body during the autopsy. Swabs of it were collected but were improperly stored by the police department, Drouet said. The samples were deemed unusable.

But the medical examiner had also made and saved a slide of the material, and when the public defender's officer learned about it, they had it tested.

The results from a California serological research lab showed conclusively that the sperm was not Griffin's. It would be up to police and prosecutors to compare the DNA with state databases to determine whose it was.

Armed with the DNA results, Drouet filed a motion for a new trial in August 2004.

The prosecutors and defense attorneys have different views on the importance that the sperm played in the original trial.

Although the sperm was mentioned, prosecutors never said it was Griffin's and never alleged that Cruse's death was a sex crime. Griffin wasn't charged with rape.

The state medical examiner testified that there was no evidence of rape, though the examiner said that sperm had been left inside the victim "within hours" of her death.

But Drouet said the jury was led to believe the sperm was Griffin's because prosecutors said Griffin was Cruse's only sex partner.

"The implication was, he was the only one who had sex with her, and sperm was deposited within hours of her death, therefore Griffin must have killed her," Drouet said.

Testifying as an expert witness for the defense, Dr. Richard T. Callery, Delaware's chief medical examiner, said on Monday that Cruse's body did show signs of rape.

A Baltimore jury will sift through the new and old information to decide Griffin's fate. However, no trial date has been set.

Drouet said she is optimistic: "The DNA shows clearly that there is somebody else who committed this murder."