When John Warren first learned last year that the state was offering to release him from a life sentence in prison, he viewed it as prosecutors righting a wrong. Finally, after decades of maintaining his innocence, the state was taking an “honorable” step, he thought.
Within several months, those feelings of relief turned to anguish and confusion, as the new Baltimore state’s attorney’s administration sought to retract the deal struck months earlier and effectively keep Warren incarcerated for his murder conviction more than 20 years ago.
“They got my family’s hopes high, my friends’ hopes high. They felt like, you know, ‘Finally, justice is really being done in this case,’” Warren said in a video interview from the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland.
“When I got word they was changing their position, I was really confused,” he continued. “I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve cried, to be honest with you.”
Now, with Warren’s release from prison hanging in the balance, a judge is expected to hear arguments on Wednesday about whether the agreement was binding and, potentially, whether Warren’s post-conviction claims warrant a new trial. His family members hope to see their loved one freed, in a case that could provide a clue as to how State’s Attorney Ivan Bates will approach wrongful conviction claims and sentence reduction efforts. He took office in January replacing Marilyn Mosby, who had served two, four-year terms as the city’s top prosecutor.
“He’s a human being,” Warren’s niece, Stephanie Hines, said. “I don’t think he should be caught up in everything going on politically. He’s a great man, he’s had accomplishments inside. He deserves a chance.”
Warren was convicted in 2000 for the 1998 murder of his best friend, Haywood Williams. Police said Williams, who used a wheelchair due to a prior shooting, suffered six gunshot wounds to the head, fired from behind.
Warren, now 41, was 17 years old when Williams was killed.
Initially considered a witness by police, Warren became a suspect, in part because prosecutors said his description of the shooting conflicted with evidence and other witness’s accounts. He was sentenced to life plus 20 years, for murder and handgun offenses.
Williams’ aunt, Sheila Ross, 60, said Tuesday she doesn’t like to talk about her nephew’s killing but that she believes Warren should serve his full sentence.
“My nephew don’t have freedom. He’s gone,” she said.
But, she added, if Warren does get out of prison: “I just pray things work out for him.”
Warren says he did not kill Williams. And he has since argued that prosecutors had exculpatory evidence that wasn’t turned over to his defense team for trial, which is known as a Brady violation, a term coined by the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland.
Nancy Forster, Warren’s attorney, contends prosecutors cannot back out of the agreement made by Becky Feldman, then the chief of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office’s Sentencing Review Unit under Mosby’s administration.
Feldman, who declined to comment for this story, recommended in November that Warren get a reduced sentence that could’ve meant his imminent release.
In February, under the new Bates administration, however, prosecutors abruptly changed course. In a two-page motion, Deputy State’s Attorney Thomas Donnelly wrote that “upon further review,” the state believed Warren’s motion had already been denied in 2019 and that it wasn’t in the “interests of justice” to reopen the case. There was little further explanation at an April 20 hearing before Judge Charles Blomquist.
In a Monday filing, the office elaborated: Prosecutors are not bound by the initial “proposed resolution” because there was no evidence of bad faith and because it wasn’t a bargained agreement, according to Lauren Lipscomb, now chief of the Conviction Integrity Unit. (Feldman’s role, chief of the Sentencing Review Unit, has not been filled since she left before the start of the year; a spokesman for the office said this week that they were “working” to fill it.)
“The State has reviewed relevant records relating to this homicide and determined that the strength of inculpating evidence outweighs the exculpating evidence as presented,” Lipscomb wrote. She added that the change in position was based on an outcome “congruent with justice and based on due diligence.”
Lipscomb added in the Monday document that Williams’ family told prosecutors in late February they “oppose relief” and didn’t want to be present in court.
Generally speaking, it’s fair to expect a new state’s attorney to change policies or legal approaches, according to David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. For instance, a new top prosecutor might want to see jail time rather than drug treatment for specific offenses.
It’s different, Jaros said, if a new administration substitutes their own reading of the facts or determinations.
“We expect [new administrations] to result in new policies and new approaches,” Jaros said, without commenting specifically on Warren’s situation. “It is much more troubling when they seem to suggest that the facts of cases are being reinterpreted, based on who’s sitting in the chair.”
It’s possible Wednesday’s hearing will dive into the alleged Brady violations, which were discovered by Warren himself from prison after he submitted public records requests.
The findings “kept me up all night,” Warren said. “I just couldn’t believe that they had this information and they sat on this information. They see a kid in trial, fighting for his life, fighting to clear his name, and they did nothing.”
His criminal file contained a memo and detective notes detailing police efforts to look into a tip about two possible suspects, who Warren said hadn’t come up before or during his trial. The tipster said she’d heard the two men talking about killing Williams and reported that another person told her the two were in Williams’ backyard the night of his murder.
This alleged Brady violation was part of Warren’s first post-conviction motion, which was denied. The judge found the evidence was withheld and favorable to the defense, but said there was no evidence that the individual’s statement would have been admissible in trial.
Breaking News Alerts
Forster now argues Warren’s initial post-conviction legal representation was lacking, arguing that hearsay rules cannot “trump his right to present a defense and receive a fair trial.”
Feldman, in the state’s original November response, said the issue had not been “finally litigated,” and was still “ripe” for the court. Prosecutors now say it would have been inadmissible hearsay, and that the court should not revisit the previous ruling just because “another attorney believes that they would have argued the same position more effectively.”
The second alleged Brady violation involved information about a shooting next door to Williams’ home, which some alleged may have involved him and could have provided motive for his murder. It was not specifically presented or ruled on in Warren’s first post-conviction hearing.
If any of Warren’s claims were successful, he would’ve been entitled to a new trial, Feldman wrote in November. Instead, she proposed a new sentence of life, with all but 25 years suspended, plus five years’ supervised probation. Under the terms of the agreement, Warren would have retained his right to pursue future innocence claims.
For Warren, who was arrested in 2000 and sentenced in 2001, it could’ve meant freedom was on the horizon, and along with it a chance to get home to his family and to start “living.”
He has a daughter and an 8-year-old granddaughter, whom he hopes to be there for. During his time in prison, his legal team says, he has earned his GED, taken a course in paralegal studies and maintained employment.
“Right now, I’m alive, but I’m not living. I’m surviving. I’m grateful for another day, another day to fight, another day to keep pushing,” Warren said. “I’ve been locked up since I was a kid, for something that I didn’t do. I just really want to start living my life.”