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Defense attorney calls on colleagues to help solve killing of toddler

Elliott was a bubbly 3-year-old when she was hit by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting.

Frustrated that police haven't made an arrest in one of the year's highest-profile killings, a local defense attorney is calling on his colleagues to ask their clients for information about the death of 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott.

Warren A. Brown said that if police are unable to solve the killing, lawyers who regularly talk to people involved in crime might help get a break in the case.

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"We are afforded the opportunity to do right by a grieving family so in need of help," Brown wrote in an open letter sent out Friday. "Our efforts may well lead directly or indirectly to the arrest of the killer."

McKenzie was on her porch in Waverly on Aug. 1 when she was fatally struck by a stray bullet. Shortly after her death, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts vowed an arrest within a week.

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A man officials publicly discussed as a suspect in the killing was taken into custody on an unrelated probation violation. He was released this week after prosecutors dropped the probation violation charge, which was based on a minor alleged infraction.

By that point the man had been held without bail for two months. The day he was allowed to be released, police said the investigation has "shifted" but declined to elaborate.

The Baltimore Sun is not naming the man because he was never charged in the killing.

"I'm assuming he's off the hook on this thing, which means at least in the public's eye, they're back to square one," Brown said in an interview.

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Brown said watching footage of McKenzie's grieving family on television motivated him to do something. He said his plan wouldn't require attorneys to breach clients' trust, nor would it involve putting them forward as witnesses. Instead, Brown foresees chats with clients leading to tips that lawyers can pass on to police.

Even so, Brown acknowledged that some defense lawyers might not feel comfortable helping police.

"I've already got a call saying, 'I didn't know Warren Brown represented snitches,' " Brown said. But he added that the case is so horrific, it justifies an unorthodox approach.

"We're talking about a 3-year-old child," he said.

Ivan J. Bates, another city defense attorney, said he understood Brown's impulse but said getting defense attorneys involved in the case could cause problems in court — problems that Bates said could lead to an attorney being called as a witness or undermine a conviction.

If a client volunteered information, Bates said it would be best for an attorney to advise them to go to the police.

But directly asking for information could hurt a lawyer's relationship with clients and reputation for fairness, Bates said, noting that some already mistake courteousness with prosecutors during plea negotiations as a sign of bias.

"We have an ethical obligation to our clients, and we have to let the police do their job," Bates said.

"Attorneys aren't supposed to be active participants," he said. When they are, "it gets really ugly and messy."

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