Three highly publicized murder cases in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties have come unraveled in recent months, frustrating victims' families, embarrassing prosecutors and sparking criticism from defense lawyers.
"It seems to me there seems to be a pattern of rushing to judgment," said Alan R. Friedman, the Anne Arundel County public defender. "If you think about the implications, it's scary."
The FBI is investigating the handling of one case, and the uncle of a suspect in another case is demanding a similar probe.
* Tierre Wallace, a 19-year-old Annapolis laborer charged with murder in the March 20 shooting death of a 16-year-old Bowie girl at a Crofton pool hall, was released Tuesday. Anne Arundel prosecutors dropped charges after an airline flight attendant said Mr. Wallace had spent the night of the murder with her and her son at her Springfield, Va., home.
* Jeffrey C. Gilbert, a Lanham man charged with murder in the death of a Prince George's County police officer, was released June 5 after police learned that another man had used the officer's gun to kill himself and found the assault pistol used to kill the officer near the suicide victim's body. The FBI is investigating the beating of Mr. Gilbert by police after his arrest.
* Charges were dropped March 30 against two men arrested in the September 1993 slaying of Joanne S. Valentine, an Arnold woman, after records showed one of them was in the Baltimore County Detention Center at the time of the slaying.
Prosecutors say charges have been dropped in other cases when alibi witnesses are discovered, contradictory evidence surfaces or witnesses cannot be found for trial. But usually, the cases are not so highly publicized.
Murder suspects often refuse to speak to police, so defense lawyers are the first to hear about credible alibi witnesses, said Haven Kodeck, a deputy state's attorney in Baltimore. And key witnesses, often relatives or friends of the suspect, also may distrust the police or feel too intimidated to get involved.
"The alibi witness may not come forward until after a [defense] lawyer is involved," said Mr. Kodeck, who declined to provide the number of cases in Baltimore that have been dismissed under those circumstances.
Gill Cochran, the Annapolis lawyer who is representing Mr. Wallace, said last week that he found Marcus Russell, 20, and his mother, Deborah Russell Delgado, who provided the alibi, two weeks after his client was arrested.
Carlos Edmonds, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Bureau in Baltimore who is Mr. Wallace's uncle, has called for a federal probe into his nephew's arrest.
"Something's not right in Anne Arundel County," he said last week. "I would hope that federal officials would investigate the handling of criminal cases in Anne Arundel County."
Meanwhile, Pam Lyons, Mrs. Valentine's sister, said she is fed up with the lack of progress in finding her sister's killers.
"It just amazes me," she said, that Gilbert Griffin, one of the original suspects, was in jail the night of the murder "and nobody knew anything about it."
Anne Arundel State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said his decisions may damage him politically but were the right moves to make, given the facts of each case.
"It may have been easier to try Mr. Wallace. You never get criticized for trying a case. But my job is to go forward only with cases where I think there's enough evidence to win a conviction, and we didn't have that here," he said.
An FBI spokesman said last week that there were no plans to investigate Mr. Wallace's arrest.
Mr. Weathersbee said he would welcome such an investigation but criticized Mr. Edmonds for calling for it.
"Now, there's a man who really doesn't know what he's talking about," Mr. Weathersbee said.
He said Mr. Wallace, who is free on $1,000 bail on an unrelated theft charge and was arrested in September on drug charges during a raid on a house in the 400 block of Secret Bend in Glen Burnie, remains a suspect in the slaying of 16-year-old Catherine Elizabeth Webster.
Mr. Weathersbee said police routinely consult him or his deputies before they arrest a murder suspect and that they were consulted before the arrests in the Valentine and Wallace cases.
But sometimes an arrest is made based on probable cause, with prosecutors and police anticipating evidence, such as DNA evidence, that later fails to surface, he said.
"Sufficient evidence for probable cause for an arrest doesn't always result in sufficient evidence for a conviction. When you sit down and look at the facts, sometimes you have one but not the other," Mr. Weathersbee said.
Police said they had sufficient evidence to make all three arrests.
Prince George's County police said three witnesses implicated Mr. Gilbert as the man who fatally shot county police Cpl. John Novabilski outside a Kentland liquor store April 26.
"There was probable cause at the time of the arrest," said Royce Holloway, a spokesman for the Prince George's County Police Department.
Lt. Harry Collier, head of the Anne Arundel Police Department's crimes against persons section, said Mr. Wallace was arrested after tipsters identified him as a suspect and a witness identified him in a photo lineup.
In the Valentine case, no one knew Mr. Griffin was in jail at the time of the shooting because his arrest in Baltimore County was never recorded in the Criminal Justice Information System computer, he said.
Mr. Collier said he sent a memo April 28 to remind his four homicide detectives of the need to gather enough evidence to convince a jury.
"Keep in mind that charges should be placed only when there is sufficient evidence to believe an arrest will result in a court conviction," he wrote.
A spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees the state court system, said the number of cases dismissed by prosecutors in Maryland was unavailable.
But prosecutors said it does not happen very often.
Beverly Woodard, who supervises the criminal trials felony division for the Prince George's County state's attorney's office, said that when charges are dropped, it is usually because witnesses cannot be found and rarely because police have arrested the wrong suspect, as in Mr. Gilbert's case.
"It happens, but it's rare," she said.