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DNA's secrets set a man free

The three slides looked like any others: translucent, three inches long, an inch wide. Tiny blue labels showed they came from 1982, from case No. 3324 - numbers that, for decades, seemed as unexceptional as the file name typed below them.

But those little slides, buried deep in Greater Baltimore Medical Center's pathology lab, held a secret of profound importance.

On July 6, 1982, an intruder jumped out of a Towson woman's bedroom closet. He shoved her onto her bed, threatened to kill her if she didn't stop trembling and raped her.

She was a white, 47-year-old English teacher. He was a young, black man.

That afternoon, after the rapist fled and the woman's husband came home, medics carried her, sobbing, from her first-floor Lambeth House apartment on Towsontown Boulevard to GBMC. A nurse collected evidence for the police and made sample slides for the hospital.

Those slides held the microscopic genetic evidence that could one day prove the attacker's identity. But in 1982, that information was scientifically impossible to extract.

So, two weeks later, when the woman forced herself to look at five black men standing shoulder to shoulder in the police station, when she pointed to the one she recognized as her attacker, the slides could not reveal whether she had picked correctly.

And by the time genetic technology could have shown the truth, the slides had been long forgotten.

They kept their secret for 20 years.

The victim testifies

In March 1983, 20-year-old Bernard Webster went to trial, charged with the Towson rape.

The victim seemed afraid as she walked to the witness stand, giving a wide berth to the 5-foot 8-inch, 142-pound man in jeans at the defense table.

She sobbed as she testified, describing how, after they first came face to face, her attacker spun her around and wrapped a house dress around her head so tightly that she could hardly breathe. She said he pressed something hard into her back and told her it was a gun.

"Do you see that person in court today?" asked Assistant State's Attorney Robert W. Lazzaro.

"Yes, I do," she replied. And then she pointed at Webster. "That's he."

She was only the first witness. But Webster, an East Baltimore man with big eyes and a street attitude, had been in enough courtrooms to know he was finished.

He knew it wouldn't matter that his city friends said they'd never seen him in khaki pants, which the rapist left under the woman's bed. Wouldn't matter that William Wade Nathaniel Dorsey said he and Webster were playing basketball near Harford Road that day, or that Dorsey's girlfriend remembered the men visiting after their game.

Webster felt the antagonism in the Baltimore County courtroom toward him and his friends, all young blacks from the city.

"Now, you apparently are a good friend of Mr. Webster, is that correct?" Lazzaro asked Dorsey in his cross-examination.

"Yes, sir."

"You naturally want to help him out, he being in this jam, right?"

"I mean yes, you could say that, but what I'm saying is the truth."

"Oh, it is?"

The prosecutors had damning testimony. Police said they had found a key in the woman's bedroom that, if jiggled enough, fit the lock in Webster's Mount Royal Terrace apartment. A police chemist said the attacker's blood matched Webster's type A. And two Lambeth House employees said they saw Webster at the complex.

"Members of the jury, it's not often that you get a case where you have three solid identifications like this," Lazzaro said in his closing argument. "And the question here is, how many do you need? How many people have to come in and say this is the man?"

Webster had decided not to testify, not to let prosecutors ask him about his youth on Baltimore's east side, about the juvenile auto theft charge or the heroin slinging or the simple assault charge that was the reason he was in jail when officers came to arrest him for rape.

He didn't want to talk about why he played basketball most days and stopped attending school by the 10th grade, why he had been arrested months earlier for taking a pocketbook from Towson's Loyola Federal Building - the crime that made county detectives suspect him in the rape.

He didn't even want to be there. They could have had the trial just as well without him, he figured. Years later, he would realize he had been in shock.

As the jury filed into the courtroom, Webster already knew the verdict.

The foreman stood. "We find the defendant guilty," he announced.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge John E. Raine Jr. declared Webster's home situation "broken," his personality "anti-social" and rejected his lawyer's request for a psychiatric evaluation.

"I don't think a psychiatrist is going to tell me anything about this boy that's helpful," Raine said.

He sentenced Webster to 30 years.

Following protocol, the judge asked Webster whether he wanted to speak. He answered no but then kept talking.

"All I'd like to say is, you know, I feel sorry for everybody and everything, you know, but I wish ... the jurors could find out otherwise that I wasn't really the person who done it, which I wasn't," he said. "You know, I'm always say I wasn't, because I wasn't, so that's all."

"Do you have anything else you'd like to say?" the judge asked.

"No sir. That's all."

Public defender's role

Webster had spent five years in the medium-security Maryland Correctional Institute in Hagerstown when, in 1988, a young Canadian-born lawyer, Michele Nethercott, took a job with the Baltimore County public defender's office. She was four years out of Northeastern University's School of Law in Boston, time she had spent working in South Carolina on death penalty cases.

"You get a bug," she said recently of her high-stress, high-impact criminal defense work. "You're repelled, or for whatever reason you become gripped by it." She paused, sipping from her to-go coffee cup. "I don't think sitting in an office poring over contracts every day would be for me."

Nethercott, now 43, spent five years as a public defender in the county - "at that time not a good place to be representing an African-American man charged with raping a white woman," she said - and four more in the city. Then she moved to the statewide public defender's office, where she began working again on capital cases.

That's when she started taking science classes at night.

Nethercott was fascinated by science, and as she watched it creep more and more into the courtroom, she wanted to know more. She especially wanted to learn about DNA.

By the early 1990s, DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, was changing how police investigated crimes and how lawyers tried cases. DNA evidence was based on the premise that everyone has a different genetic makeup and that scientists could find that unique pattern in any cell, whether from skin, saliva, blood or hair.

As time passed and the technology advanced, scientists found ways to create DNA profiles from smaller and older samples. The testing became more accurate, and people went to jail because cells from their semen or blood or skin convinced juries that they were guilty.

Others were exonerated.

By the late 1990s, the head of the Maryland public defender's office, Stephen E. Harris, knew he needed an expert in this new science. Prosecutors and police were using DNA, but Harris knew it could also help the defense. In 1993, he used it to free Kirk Bloodsworth, a Cambridge man who had spent nine years in prison for the rape and murder of a Rosedale child.

"I realized early on that DNA was a very complicated science," Harris said. "It's something that trial lawyers would not just have to be aware of, but have enough expertise in that they could cross-examine state's witnesses."

Harris asked Nethercott to head a new, unofficial forensics division. She had a reputation as a skilled defense attorney who lived and bled her cases. She was intense but amicable and had a growing knowledge of DNA. Harris thought she was perfect for the job.

Nethercott agreed to become the one-woman unit, responsible for providing scientific guidance to the state's 400-plus public defenders. In 2001, Harris assigned Nethercott a deputy, Patrick Kent, and told the two to look for wrongful convictions.

It was a weighty responsibility. Nethercott and Kent knew the power of DNA, but also its limits. In most cases, DNA testing was moot because biological material never played a role in the conviction or because evidence had long since been destroyed. If, against all odds, a sample of semen, blood or hair remained, the DNA had often deteriorated.

Take Bernard Webster's case.

For years the inmate had been writing to lawyers, judges, anyone he could think of, insisting he was innocent. But police had long ago destroyed the evidence in the Towson rape, now a hazy footnote for all but the main characters.

Even if something remarkable happened, such as finding evidence slides, it was likely that technicians 20 years ago used an adhesive now known to make subsequent DNA testing useless. When Nethercott and Kent looked at his case, they knew the odds of exoneration were minuscule.

`Adjusting period'

Once you're in prison, it takes time to realize you're not getting out, Bernard Webster said. It takes years of fighting and disrespecting correctional officers, also called COs, who bait you because they know you have a short fuse.

"The adjusting period was hard," he said. "I did a lot of things I wasn't supposed to do. I was rebellious to the police [correctional officers] because I felt as though the police put me here. I felt as if the police was the enemy."

But, he said, at some point you realize, after the van ride to Hagerstown that stretches on forever through unfamiliar farmland, after you first pull into the razor-wire city of prisons on Roxbury Road, that all you have is time.

Back in April 2, 1984, though, Webster was only starting to figure that out.

On that spring day, he walked into a small prison office and sat across a desk from the hearing officer who was assigned his file. It was Webster's first parole hearing. He was 21 years old.

He and the officer spoke about his record - the juvenile theft charge, the heroin possession, the simple assault - which Webster called trivial. They also talked about July 6 two years before, when a white woman was raped in her Towson home by a stranger.

Webster was adamant. He didn't do it.

That fact was duly noted by the hearing officer:

"Mr. Webster appears to lack insight into his behavior past and present and views his prior convictions as petty. His denial of the instant offense will certain [sic] hinder any treatment goals."

If the inmate would only take responsibility, the hearing officer wrote, then he could transfer to the rehabilitation-oriented Patuxent Institution in Jessup. But until he admitted his crime, he would stay put. Parole denied.

"And they tell me, they say, `Well, you come back and see us in 1992.'" Webster recalled. "I'm looking like, `What's that?' I don't know what `1992' is. I say, `What's that mean?' They're looking at me like, `What do you mean, what's that mean?' I say, `Explain that to me.' He says to me, `Well, you come back in 1992.'

"I'm like, `Wow.'"

Rape arrest

It was 1987, three years after Bernard Webster's first parole hearing, when a Baltimore dispatcher took a 911 call from the Chapel Gate Lane apartments in West Baltimore. It was a woman who said she had been raped.

Two men had surprised her in her living room that evening, she told police. One grabbed her and put a knife to her back, she said, and forced her into her bedroom. She said he threatened to kill her if she made any noise, then raped her.

After months of investigation, police arrested 19-year-old Darren Lyndell Powell and his cousin.

Breaking in had been a spur-of-the-moment idea, Powell said. He said he and his cousin were high on cocaine, driving a rental car and looking for fun. They hadn't planned to attack anyone, he said. When the woman walked out of her bedroom, he said, the drugs took over.

Powell had a lengthy record of burglaries and narcotics use. But when investigators spoke with him about the Chapel Gate Lane case, they had no reason to think they were looking at anything but a stand-alone sexual assault.

Powell pleaded guilty to the West Baltimore rape in October 1988 and was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

He was incarcerated in the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup when, in 1994, state officials began collecting DNA profiles from convicted sex offenders. They said they wanted to create a database that would help them solve crimes.

So, a state worker drew Powell's blood and sent it to the Maryland State Police crime laboratory in Pikesville. A scientist extracted his DNA and stored it in the computer.

Years later, that profile grabbed the attention of investigators looking back at another rape, the 1982 assault in Towson's Lambeth House apartments.

Life in prison

Anything can happen in prison, an older inmate told Bernard Webster. You could kill a corrections officer, or a CO could kill you. You could kill another inmate, or another inmate could kill you. Or you could realize that you're not doing life and that the best thing to do is re- adjust your attitude and not mess that up.

"He says, `Man, just change your whole outlook on life,' " Webster recalled. " `Because you don't have life in prison. You got a release date. You got a chance to get out of prison, sooner or later. There's no stopping that. They have to let you go.'

"You know how when you're young, you hear something but you don't hear it? Well, I heard that. And it stuck with me for a long time."

After six years in prison, Webster started to adjust. He took an alternative-to-violence course and high school classes. He worked prison jobs. He started reading the law.

"You know, you're not really supposed to take books from the law library," he said. "But I would take books from the law library and go to sleep with them. You know, read, read, read, read, read."

He wrote to the public defender's office and even the judge, insisting he was innocent. Sometimes he got form letters back. Sometimes he got nothing.

He spent time in his 9-by-6-foot cell, listening to the clanging metal doors and voices that bounced amplified off the cold, hard surfaces. He exercised in the yard, the open rectangle surrounded by granite walls where men lifted weights and shot hoops. He watched news shows on television, cheering with the other inmates when one of their own came on the screen.

"I didn't have problems with other people [in prison]," he said. "I think I was a likable guy."

In the 1990s, correctional officers trusted him enough to have him speak to teen-agers touring the prison, visits intended to improve their behavior.

Webster introduced himself as prisoner No. 166605 and told them not to make his mistakes. He swallowed the thought that he was lying.

"They had to have somebody tell them how to live, to push them in the right direction," he said. "It was good for me. I felt good about doing something for someone else."

More parole hearings came and went - all the same. A rapist who refuses to take responsibility for his crime, who keeps blaming others for his situation, will never leave early. Parole denied.

At some point, though, getting out stopped being the goal. It wasn't enough for Webster to just leave prison, to walk away from Hagerstown known as No. 166605, a rapist.

"When you're in prison like that, you live a lie," he said. "You're living under false everything. And that's not good. It's not you."

Webster wanted his good name back.

Tenacious lawyer

Michele Nethercott recognized the name on the letter. Bernard Webster. That was the man who filed an appeal in the early 1980s challenging the police lineup that led to his conviction, she recalled.

Webster didn't have a lawyer during that lineup, only a law student sent by the public defender's office. The Maryland Court of Appeals agreed that Webster should have had counsel but upheld his conviction all the same.

It was December 2000. As she read the letter, another inmate, Larry Youngblood of Arizona, came to the lawyer's mind. In the 1980s, Youngblood had challenged the destruction of some evidence in his case but, like Webster, could not get rid of his conviction.

But in August 2000, DNA evidence had cleared Youngblood of his sexual assault charge. He was released after 12 years in an Arizona prison.

Now, on Nethercott's desk, was another claim of innocence by another inmate with a notable appeal, another case where DNA could make the difference.

"I remember thinking, `God, that's wild,'" she said.

She didn't know then that Webster had recognized her name, too.

In prison, Webster had been keeping tabs of this new DNA evidence. He watched the television as men in Illinois and Virginia and Oklahoma walked out of prison to tearful loved ones and lawyers. He read newspaper descriptions of the science.

"Everything that came up in the news, everything that came out in the paper about the justice system, I thought `Let me see if I can get a piece of this,'" he said. "I was pulling at every little thing."

Still, Webster was wary. He worried about police and prosecutors, and about evidence-tampering.

But he kept watching men be exonerated. He bought a book titled DNA with money he had saved from prison jobs. He started to believe DNA was his chance.

So, once again, Webster wrote letters. Nethercott had been quoted in articles about DNA cases, so Webster put her name on an outgoing envelope.

As she read his letter, Nethercott noticed that Webster's release date was two years away because of automatic "good time credits." A guilty man probably wouldn't pick a fight at this point, she thought.

In her Baltimore office, she started tracking down Webster's long-stored file and ordering transcripts. She knew she was unlikely to find any evidence to test.

But Nethercott, with her steely blue eyes and coffee-fueled drive, had earned her reputation as a pit bull for a reason. Nobody was more likely to keep searching after Baltimore County police reported that evidence from State vs. Webster had long ago been eliminated.

"Her tenacity is matched by the size of her heart and her belief in her cause and her client," said Kent, her partner in the forensics division. "And that's a formidable combination."

There was nobody more likely to find the small reference number, on a medical report buried in Webster's dusty file, that seemed to indicate that, at some point, GBMC had stored its evidence slides from the Towson rape.

She called the hospital in January 2001. The return phone call March 7 was one of 14 voice mail messages. She copied down the number halfheartedly, assuming the hospital would tell her that no slides were still in storage.

"It was really just one of those long-shot calls," she said. "I wasn't very optimistic it was going to go anywhere."

But then the news stunned her.

Three slides from that case were still in the pathology lab, a hospital lawyer said over the phone. He just wasn't sure whether the hospital could legally release them.

`I had to believe'

Patrick Kent met Bernard Webster toward the end of summer 2001 in a prison visiting room. The lawyer had made the trip to Hagerstown to describe every pitfall between the slides, still in GBMC storage, and freedom. "I went to let him know what would happen procedurally, to lay out the framework of what was going to happen," Kent said.

Kent, 36, shares Nethercott's easy laugh. He also has the same trace of fatigue across his face, a shadow around his blue eyes and a pleasant smile.

When he was younger, Kent had wanted to be a social worker. He had counseled homeless youths in his hometown, Syracuse, N.Y., after college, and had then enrolled in the University of Maryland's graduate school of social work.

But Kent itched for a broader way to tackle the problems he saw facing the people with whom he worked. He thought the law would be a good first step, so he went to the University of Baltimore and earned his degree, and started working in the public defender's office.

He connected with clients. He recognized their financial disadvantages, the temptations and hardships of their rough neighborhoods. To many, he became a friend.

"My job was not only defending them, it was getting to know them," he said. "It just confirmed my belief that much that goes wrong with society is because we as a society aren't doing what we should for people."

In 2001, Harris, chief of the public defender's office, asked Kent to work for Nethercott in a new forensics division. Kent was thrilled. His first major case as a lawyer had been a forensics-packed murder he helped Nethercott defend, and he had looked up to her as a mentor ever since. And, like Nethercott, he was one of the rare lawyers happy to delve into science.

"I had been somewhat of a thwarted scientist growing up, which was more making smoke bombs and stink bombs and stuff like that," he said. "At some point that's not productive. I had to channel it."

Kent had recently started working with Nethercott when he visited Webster that summer day. Yet he was more than familiar with the roadblocks law and science would throw in the way of Webster's exoneration.

As he sat across from Webster, Kent warned that even if all went well procedurally, Webster could be paroled before they received any DNA testing results from the GBMC slides.

But Webster wasn't fazed. And that's when, in his gut, Kent knew Bernard Webster was innocent.

"I'm not naive," Kent said. "I know that not every person that I have gone and talked with who makes a request for assistance is innocent. But the fact that he was so driven by reclaiming his name, himself, regaining Bernard Webster ... I had to believe that somebody who was driven by that was not guilty."

Later, Webster said he had had "an 85 percent thought" then that the lawyer believed him. Kent kept insisting as much. But lawyers can be like that, Webster said, saying anything because they want you to trust them.

"I explained the scenario to him a couple of times back to back," Webster said. "I said, `I'm serious about this. This is personal. This is something that's really personal to me. This is what I really want to do.'"

Patience

After 19 years in prison, you learn patience, Webster said. And he needed it in the months after he met with Kent.

First, there was the fight with prosecutors over whether DNA testing should be allowed in this long-closed case, then over which lab to use. In January last year, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Christian M. Kahl told GBMC to release the slides and let Nethercott and Kent send them to the lab of their choice.

Then came the hassle of finding someone licensed to draw blood to get a DNA sample from Webster in Hagerstown. The prison health-care workers had said it was not in their contract to do so. By the time a hired phlebotomist swabbed Webster's cheek in prison, more than a year had passed since Nethercott found the reference to the GBMC slides.

"It was overwhelming to me just to get that test," Webster said. "I was still afraid of that test. I was afraid of that test because I felt as though, if that test gets in the wrong hands it could be tampered with or whatever. And I was really, really afraid."

`Good news'

The week of Sept. 30, 2002, Nethercott and Suzanne Drouet, another lawyer working on Webster's case, drove separately through the rain to the Hagerstown prison, past the developments off Interstate 70 that sprouted long after Webster last took that road, past Frederick and into the farmland that hasn't changed much.

The call came into the prison unit: attorney visit for Webster.

Webster had never met Nethercott. But her first words started a bond between them that has grown only tighter:

"I've got good news for you," she said.

Webster looked calm. There's only so much emotion you can show in a prison visiting room, where there's no private area to meet with your lawyer, where everyone can see you. But his eyes teared, and he asked to read the paperwork.

It was true, and in print. The lab had found a full DNA profile from the 20-year-old samples. And it did not match Bernard Webster.

Drouet hurried into the visiting room.

"Did you tell him the good news already?" she asked Nethercott.

Webster looked at her, and flashed his light-up-the-room grin.

"You late," he said.

Jubilation, and sadness

After he heard the test results, Kent spent the rest of the day staring out his Baltimore Street office window.

"I just couldn't do anything," he said. "I just couldn't believe it. And it was such a mixture of emotions, from absolute jubilation of what the result was, to just such sadness at what it was like to be Bernard for two decades in jail, and that his life had been taken from him."

Kent started thinking about years. His first child had been born June 17, 2002, three months before. During those first months, every minute, every hour seemed magical. A full year was hard to fathom. Twenty, impossible.

"I couldn't tell you, since we've gotten the results for Bernard, the amount of time I've caught myself just trying to quantify what 20 years is, and every time I stop," Kent said. "I'm overwhelmed. I just can't do it. It makes me too sad."

Court hearing

The Baltimore County state's attorney's office challenged the results and on Oct. 29 sent its own people to get a sample from Webster. Nethercott went to the prison, too, at Webster's request. He didn't trust prosecutors.

The state's attorney's office persuaded the Towson rape victim and her husband to provide DNA samples to ensure that the slides came from her case and to exclude her husband as a source. The Sun does not identify rape victims. When contacted recently, the woman said she did not want to comment.

On Friday, Nov. 1, the state received its results.

Webster had thought he would hear from Nethercott by Monday. By Wednesday, he was going crazy waiting. Then a corrections officer walked over to him.

There are two empty boxes over there, he told Webster. Get your stuff together. People are coming to take you to Baltimore County.

A few minutes later, another prison staffer explained further: Webster had a court hearing the next day. He was going to be set free.

Webster threw his belongings in the boxes, and the sheriff shackled him for the ride to Towson.

"I'm not going to lie to you, because I think I'm a big man," Webster said. "I cried. I cried for a couple of hours. More because I was happy, you know, and I felt so good that this was almost over."

A sheriff took Webster from the Towson precinct to jail. There, the staff processed him, the whole strip-down, how-many-tattoos-do-you-have deal. They gave Webster a mattress and a "boat," the plastic dishes men sleep in when no beds are available.

Four hours later, they woke him up. It was time to go to court.

When Webster walked into Judge Kahl's courtroom the morning of Nov. 7, a Thursday, he was still in shackles. He pointed at Drouet sitting in the courtroom benches, at Norm Handwerger, another public defender who helped with his case. He hugged Nethercott and Kent, who were waiting for him at the defense table.

"My tears started jumping when I walked around to the courtroom," Webster said "And I'm waiting. I'm waiting until this man says I'm released. I'm just waiting. But I couldn't hold my tears. I didn't really bust out with them, but they were there. Because I'm happy. I was really happy. It's probably the happiest thing that had happened to me in a long time."

A week and a half after Webster's release, when the reporters and cameras were still clamoring to get to him, the Baltimore County police announced that they had arrested another man in the 20-year-old Towson rape case.

When police ran the DNA evidence used to exonerate Webster through the state's database, they found a match.

Darren Lyndell Powell, the Baltimore man who recently completed a prison stint for the rape in West Baltimore's Chapel Gate Lane apartments, was their man. Police arrested Powell on Nov. 18, on his way to work.

"I think about people who say the system works," said Harris, the head public defender. "That's bull. That's a copout. In Webster's case, the system `worked' the way it should work and there was still a mistake."

A life ahead of him

Webster is focused on his new life: plans to take computer courses, plans to move up from his job as a prep chef, plans to go back to the church where he once sang as a choirboy, Macedonia Baptist on Lafayette Avenue in the city.

He has spoken to rookie public defenders, to college students, to legislators. He knows his story affects them and hopes that means laws and attitudes will change.

A number of bills introduced in Annapolis this year refer to Webster's experience. Primarily, they concern compensation for the wrongfully convicted and the state's DNA laws. His case has also prompted a national legal clinic to call for a review of the 480 Baltimore County Police Department cases analyzed by the chemist who testified against Webster.

This year, the state agreed to pay Webster over the next 10 years what amounts to $45,000 for each year he spent in prison.

Webster said he spends as much time as he can with the friends and family members he missed for so long, and has a list pages long of people he wants to thank for their support: his aunt Ada Emanuel, his cousin Lindey Emanuel, her son, little Henry, to name three. And, of course, his lawyers.

He still sees Nethercott and Kent regularly - every week if not every day. They seem amazed and proud of each other, with their jokes and jabs and knowing glances.

"Some days are not as good as others," Webster said. "But I feel good to be out and go and do anything I want at any time. When you're inside, you dream of stuff like this."

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