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Like 'Eliot Ness': Chief judge slams Baltimore detectives for interrogation in Taylor Hayes case

Judge Wanda Keyes Heard ripped into detectives for the way they interrogated a defendant charged as an accessory in the killing of 7-year-old Taylor Hayes.
Judge Wanda Keyes Heard ripped into detectives for the way they interrogated a defendant charged as an accessory in the killing of 7-year-old Taylor Hayes.(Baltimore Sun)

The chief judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court slammed city detectives for intimidating a suspect and compared their grueling interrogation last year to the tough-guy tactics of 1930s G-men.

Circuit Judge Wanda Keyes Heard said she felt outraged after watching video of the 12-hour police interrogation of Daneka McDonald.

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“I liken this behavior to Eliot Ness’ days,” she told the courtroom Tuesday, referring to the hard-charging treasury officer responsible for bringing down mobster Al Capone during prohibition. “The days when they put a person in a room, and they turned on the hot lights. … Tell us you did it! Tell us you did it!”

Her sharp rebuke came during a hearing Tuesday in the case against McDonald. The 35-year-old woman from Southwest Baltimore is charged as an accessory after the July 2018 shooting death of 7-year-old Taylor Hayes. Prosecutors said McDonald’s car was driven in the shooting.

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Taylor was shot July 5 while riding through Southwest Baltimore in the back seat of a car. She fought for two weeks before dying July 19.

Three officers picked up McDonald at her home after the shooting and brought her downtown for questioning. Their questions were casual at first, the judge said. But as the hours passed, tensions escalated. Prosecutors told the judge that police noticed McDonald deleting messages and calls from her cellphone. They said she wasn’t cooperating.

The judge found the tone of their questions changed when Detective Sandra Forsythe walked in.

“I don’t even know what to call the questioning by Officer Forsythe other than disgraceful,” Heard said.

Forsythe could not be reached for comment. Baltimore Police spokespersons did not respond to questions Wednesday. Heard said the detectives were purposefully aggressive to intimidate McDonald.

“The language is what I’m talking about, the vulgar, degrading, profane statements,” the judge said. “No one — I don’t care what you’re charged with — deserves to be spoken to in that way.”

Melba Saunders, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, did not return messages, including a request for video of the police interrogation. In court Tuesday, prosecutors did not play the exchange with Forsythe. It remains unknown what the detective said. Heard said she could not provide the video.

Such evidence is routinely kept confidential until the conclusion of a case. McDonald is scheduled to stand trial in September on charges of obstruction of justice and evidence tampering in addition to accessory after the crime.

Her attorney, Latoya Francis-Williams, asked the judge to throw out the entire video. The defense attorney told the judge her client had asked for an attorney and invoked her right to remain silent. Still, the police pressed her with questions.

Homicide detective Tavon McCoy had advised her of her rights. Then McDonald signed a form waiving her right to remain silent. “If I’m going to be interrogated,” she said, “then I want an attorney.”

Mourners gathered Saturday morning for the funeral of seven-year-old shooting victim Taylor Hayes.

The detectives, however, told her their questions were not an interrogation but merely an interview. Heard found further explanation by McCoy to be disingenuous.

“That gibberish … that he gave distorted her advisement in such a way that it made the waiver invalid.” the judge said.

Heard ordered that all statements made by McDonald after she signed the waiver and asked for an attorney would not be allowed at trial. Her preceding statements are allowed at trial.

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Her boyfriend, Keon Gray, 30, of West Baltimore, remains charged with murder in the death of the 7-year-old. Police arrested him at a motel near BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport one month after the girl was killed. Police and prosecutors have not revealed what led them to Gray. He is scheduled for trial in July.

The killing of Taylor Hayes shocked families across Baltimore. The little girl was shot while riding in the backseat of a car in Southwest Baltimore. Police charged a passenger in the car with drug and gun crimes unrelated to her death. Another child in the backseat was not harmed.

The second-grader died two weeks later at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Neighbors gathered for a candlelight vigil, remembering the little girl for her bear hugs and delight in “Go Fish.”

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